Aluminum sales have skyrocketed in recent years, mainly due to the fact that it’s durable, resistant to corrosion, and applicable for all kinds of industries. The material accounts for more than 80% of all die cast parts and is able to be used in end products that can reduce environmental impact, like energy efficient cars, appliances, and more. However, the way aluminum is extracted is not so eco-friendly, which means that scientists are looking for a better, greener aluminum.
Fuel efficiency standards have become stricter in many parts of the country, which is partially why aluminum has become more popular. But the actual process of making aluminum is fairly harmful to the environment as well. Producing one ton of aluminum creates 12 tons of carbon (an amount almost six times the amount emitted when the same amount of steel is produced). Some experts stress the fact that some U.S. aluminum producers produce significantly fewer carbon emissions due to their reliance on hydroelectricity, rather than the coal Chinese aluminum producers use.
Still, a powerful group of manufacturers and producers have formed the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative and have begun working on a solution in the form of green manufacturing standards. Apple and Alcoa are among the brands involved. They expect to start green aluminum certification by the end of the year.
Group director Fiona Solomon explains to Marketplace: “Our aim is really to maximize the contribution of aluminum to a sustainable society.”
This isn’t the only way scientists are hoping to change aluminum. Researchers from Utah State University and Russia’s Southern Federal University have developed a new type of lightweight aluminum that will actually float in water. That aspect isn’t actually the point, however. The fact that it’s so lightweight has huge implications for many industries, including “spaceflight, medicine, wiring, and… fuel-efficient automotive parts,” according to USU chemist and researcher Alexander Boldyrev. It could reduce costs and complications when launching rockets and allow drivers to cut back on carbon emissions. And while the material has yet to be produced, the possibilities are promising.
And last month, researchers announced that they had found a way to 3D print high-strength aluminum and actually weld a material that was formerly unweldable. Essentially, HRL Laboratories researchers developed a method they’re calling nanofunctionalization, which involves feeding nanofunctionalized powders into a 3D printer. These powders form thin laters that are heated via laser and made into a 3D object. This process keeps these objects from cracking and allow them to maintain their total alloy strength. Not only can these objects be printed in all kinds of shapes and sizes in a quick and inexpensive way, but the process can actually allow these alloys to be welded. Already, more than 50% of U.S.-made products require welding, but this would make it possible to weld all sorts of materials that could not be amended in this way in the past.
Ultimately, the use of 3D printing and lab-produced alloys could potentially reduce harmful environmental impacts that aluminum production normally poses. But until these methods are developed further and industry standards are set for green aluminum practices, industries will have to keep their eyes open for further updates.
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