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What Element was Once More Expensive Than Gold?

Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and the atomic number 79, making it one of the naturally occurring elements with a higher atomic number. It is a bright, slightly orange-yellow, dense, soft, malleable, and ductile metal in its pure form. In chemistry, gold is a transition metal and a group 11 element. It is one of the least reactive chemical elements and is solid under normal conditions. It is also considered the most expensive element. But did you know there is an element that was more valuable than gold in the early years?

Aluminum was once more expensive than gold. Emperor Napoleon III retained a valuable set of aluminum cutlery for select guests at feasts as a status symbol. Guests who were less well-liked were served with gold knives and forks.

What is Aluminum?

Aluminum is a chemical element with the symbol Al and the atomic number 13. Aluminum has a lower density than most other common metals, approximately one-third the density of steel. When exposed to air, it has a high affinity for oxygen and forms a protective oxide coating on the surface. 

Aluminum mimics silver in appearance, color, and ability to reflect light. It is ductile, soft, and non-magnetic. Aluminum has only one stable isotope, which is quite frequent, making it the twelfth most common element in the Universe. Radiodating uses the radioactivity of Al.

Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted announced the discovery of aluminum in 1825. In 1856, French chemist Henri Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville began the first industrial manufacture of aluminum. The Hall–Héroult technique, developed separately by French engineer Paul Héroult and American engineer Charles Martin Hall in 1886, made aluminum much more accessible to the general people, and mass manufacturing led to its widespread use in industry and everyday life.

Aluminum was a critical strategic material for aircraft during World Wars I and II. Aluminum surpassed copper as the most commonly produced non-ferrous metal in 1954. Most aluminum was used in transportation, engineering, construction, and packaging in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan in the twenty-first century. (Source: Britannica)

Why has the Price of Aluminum Dropped?

The aluminum market experienced a massive crash. Entrepreneurs in the United States and Europe have finally figured out how to separate aluminum from minerals on a low-cost basis and how to produce it on a large scale. They accomplished this by passing a current through a bath of liquid containing dissolved aluminum ore. The electricity shocked the dissolved aluminum molecules, knocking them out of the solution and forming small gray nuggets in the vat.

From a world production total of perhaps a few ounces per month in previous decades, the largest U.S. aluminum company could produce nearly 50 pounds of aluminum per day by 1888. It had to ship out 88,000 pounds per day within 20 years to meet demand. Prices fell as production increased. The first aluminum ingots on the market cost $550 per pound in the mid-1800s. Fifty years later, without even adjusting for inflation, the same amount costs 25 cents.
With that drop, the world’s most coveted metal became the utterly banal metal we all know today, the foundation for soda cans, pinging Little League bats, and airplane bodies. It’s up to you whether you think aluminum was better off as the world’s most precious or most productive metal. (Source: Slate)

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