by Breana Cronk, IQS Editor
High atop the astounding obelisk of the Washington Monument rests a pyramid made of precious materials. Glistening in the early morning sunrise of Washington D.C., this capstone serves as a powerful reminder of the nation’s forefathers and the achievements made by all fellow countrymen. With such an important role in our iconography, one might expect this pyramid to be constructed of extremely valuable materials, and it is or rather, it was. The capstone is made of pure aluminum. While nowadays the word might be more closely associated with kitchen products than prized possessions, it was once as precious as silver. Just as the height of the Washington Monument itself has since been surpassed, however, the price of aluminum likewise waned. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, aluminum remains one of the most versatile and integral metals in modern industry.
The Washington Monument.
The price drop for aluminum products was the result of new and improved methods for extracting the metal from ores such as bauxite. The Hall-Heroult method significantly reduced the cost of producing aluminum, which in turn allowed aluminum suppliers to lower the price of products. The price, however, cannot be given all of the credit for the versatility of this element. Light weight, resistant to corrosion, extremely malleable and an excellent conductor of electricity, it is the qualities of aluminum that render it irreplaceable in so many industries. The metal, in fact, was chosen for the Washington Monument not only for its elegant appearance, but also to act as a lightening rod due to its conductivity and non-staining characteristics.
Grades of aluminum alloys further diversify the applicability of the metal by tweaking the characteristics to suit specific needs. 7075 aluminum, for example, is a heat-treatable alloy well suited to, and often referred to as aircraft aluminum. The most common grade, 6061 aluminum is used in industries ranging from engineering to bicycle construction. Aluminum pipes and tubing are common in marine and chemical industries in the form of variable alloys formulated to enhance the corrosion resistance of the element. The industrial uses of aluminum and its alloys are seemingly limitless.
While architectural, aerospace construction and other grand industrial uses may gain notice for aluminum on a large scale, it is often overlooked on a smaller scale. The metal is actually found in nearly every American home. Aluminum sheet is used for appliance enclosures, food packaging and even beverage cans. Although this may seem like a step back for a metal once as valued as silver, aluminum is a shining example of the American way, beautiful and practical. While serving as the capstone for the Washington Monument may be the literal high point of the American aluminum industry, the element has become much more than just a symbol; aluminum is a staple of not only modern industry, but the modern American life.