As we stomp our empty Natty Lites flat to make room in the blue-bin, wrap our Costco chicken wings in foil, and enjoy cheap high-speed air travel – it is easy to forget that just outside of living memory, aluminum was considered a precious metal.

According to Jefferson Lab, “Scientists suspected than an unknown metal existed in alum as early as 1787, but they did not have a way to extract it until 1825. Hans Christian Oersted, a Danish chemist, was the first to produce tiny amounts of aluminum. Two years later, Friedrich Wöhler, a German chemist, developed a different way to obtain the metal. By 1845, he was able to produce samples large enough to determine some of aluminum’s basic properties. Wöhler’s method was improved in 1854 by Henri Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville, a French chemist. Deville’s process allowed for the commercial production of aluminum. As a result, the price of the metal dropped from around $1200 per kilogram in 1852 to around $40 per kilogram in 1859. Unfortunately, the metal remained too expensive to be widely used.”

Although aluminum is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, it is never found free in nature. All of the earth’s aluminum has combined with other elements to form compounds. Two of the most common compounds are alum, such as potassium aluminum sulfate (KAl(SO4)2·12H2O), and aluminum oxide (Al2O3). About 8.2% of the earth’s crust is composed of aluminum.”

Pure aluminum was so rare at that time it was considered a precious metal. Charles Martin Hall’s method of processing the metal ore was to pass an electric current through a non-metallic conductor (molten sodium fluoride compound was used) to separate the very conductive aluminum. In 1889, Charles Martin Hull was awarded U.S. patent #400,666 for his process.

In 1888, together with financier Alfred E. Hunt, Charles Martin Hall founded the Pittsburgh Reduction Company now know as the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). By 1914, Charles Martin Hall had brought the cost of aluminum down to 18 cents a pound and it was no longer considered a precious metal.

1914. Sound familiar? The start of WWI.

In roughly the same distance in time as from DESERT STORM to now, Aluminum went from a rarely used metal in the military with only the German Junkers J.I making it to war, to being a strategic commodity ubiquitous in its use from eating utensils to intercontinental bombers.

Were the fathers of economic aluminum Charles Martin Hall, Paul Heroult, and Karl Joseph Bayer thinking about how aluminum would change the way war would be fought? No.

Did the military know right away the way aluminum would transform the strength and performance of established technology? No … but some had an idea.

I thought of the story of aluminum earlier today when another funny sounding word came in my ear; graphene.

Do you know what graphene is? Well, I think you will more and more – just as Teddy Roosevelt’s generation started to hear aluminum and bauxite more and more as it slowly transformed their world. Not overnight, but year by year with a quickening as smart minds saw new ways to take advantage of this new advance.

Back to the Navy. What gets a lot of futurists excited as they look for the next kinetic and/or weaponeering leap? That is easy; rail guns, lasers, and particle beam weapons. In our early 21st Century tool box, what is holding these promising technologies back? What is the long pole in the tent that everything else requires to be there? In a word, energy.

Many more cards need to come out of the deck – but if you are interested in the offensive potential of rail guns, and the defensive promise of lasers and particle beam weapons – but are humbled by the very real limitations there are to making them operational – then I offer you the below.

Not revolution, but evolution. Evolution with the possibility of a quickening that 100 years ago the world saw with aluminum. Graphene based super-capacitors? Use the next generation of the DDG-1000 engineering plant? Watch the below if you can or click here, and ponder with me.

Yes, we live in interesting times as our Chinese friends might say – but rejoice dear hearts; the future has potential.

Posted by CDRSalamander in Innovation
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  • Science!

  • Andy

    Bravo. Dr. Johnson-Freese, you have succinctly explained something all the PowerPoint wishes and bafflegab dreaming from the five-sided wind tunnel could not: It takes time, talent and funding from some source to make these extraordinary things happen. I had the good fortune to watch, up close, the transition from card-punching data entry to the early use of mother-boarding processors and from DARPA-Net to what we have now. It wasn’t seamless and it sure as heck had a lot of dead ends. But we are on the verge of some very major, and this time real, transformational changes.

  • Moe_DeLaun

    Thank you for making a point I’ve played with using thought experiments for a long time.

    I’ve often imagined two well-informed, well-off gentlemen of 1912 or 1913 discussing the marvelous new century ahead, and of how they simply couldn’t imagine the approaching catastrophe that would consume most of the 20th Century. On the other hand, if one fellow held up a piece of Bakelite, the first commercial plastic, and pronounced that in a hundred years’ time this sort of stuff would make aircraft wings, blood vessels and luggage, his listener would think him mad.

    I suspect that much of the attraction the Edwardian era holds for our time (“Mary Poppins,” “Titanic”, “Downton Abbey”) springs from a fear that the world we know will also vanish, never to return save in memory.

  • The_Usual_Suspect61

    How timely. The process for making aluminum was discovered by Charles Martin Hall on February 23, 1886 in his work shed laboratory. I will drink a toast to Mr. Hall and Aluminum from a can on Saturday!

  • surfcaster

    Wow. I wonder who is the world leading producer of $20 consumer optical disk drives, err, I mean Graphene (Super) Super Capacitor Laser Application Devices.

    This has awesome potential but @ +3 minutes of finishing the video I can already see the good & bad down the road. Except it won’t only be Nation States but basements and the local hackermakelabs as well.

    Now if you can stuff a couple of these into Dreamliners….

  • KenofSoCal

    As I said elsewhere: “”You may [light’em up] when you are ready Gridley.”