Aluminum has been in the news a lot lately. For something we all interact with daily, here is a bit more you might not know. Aluminum is probably the widest used metal on Earth and is particularly important to the printing industry. It is true, inkjet and toner based printing is growing and has consumed many offset produced pages and products, but the vast majority are still produced using aluminum offset printing plates.
Did you know aluminum is made from bauxite ore (pictured, left) that is close to the surface and typically open-pit mined. Other minerals contain aluminum oxide but bauxite contains 45%-60%. The five largest bauxite producers are Australia, China, Guinea, Brazil and India. It is also found in the U.S. but in much smaller quantities compared to the top five. It takes four tons of bauxite to produce one ton of aluminum. The largest aluminum producing countries are China, Russia, Canada and India. Canada was actually the leading supplier of imported aluminum for the U.S. in 2016.
The first step in making aluminum is refining the bauxite into alumina which is a powder (pictured, right). Then the alumina is made into metallic aluminum (pictured, left) using the smelting process. Smelting extracts metal from ore using heat and melting and requires large amounts of electricity. The cost of electricity is about one-third the cost of producing aluminum. Smelting is so energy consumptive it only makes sense to locate these facilities near low cost electricity sources like hydroelectric and geothermal.
Once the smelting process is complete the aluminum is poured into ingots and cooled. Typical ingots are 6 feet wide, 20 feet long and 2 feet thick. Ingots are shipped for various processing methods such as casting, extrusion, forging, sheet and plate. Sheet is the most widely used form of industrial aluminum and is the raw material used for offset printing plates (pictured, right).
Aluminum is 100% recyclable. This fact helps offset the high energy requirements and industrial waste that is also part of the process. Of the thousands of products made from aluminum, many contain recycled aluminum. Here’s the issue for the printing industry—the grade we require for offset printing plates is the highest quality “pre-consumer” aluminum. The worldwide demand for aluminum will continue to grow and our industry uses a relatively small percentage but requires the highest quality. So other points do affect aluminum prices beyond the hot topic in today’s headlines. There are many volatile factors in the supply chain, manufacturing process and many competing markets for this highly sought after metal.
A specialized form of aluminum in conjunction with a laser is being used to manufacture large scale items like fuel tanks for rockets using an additive process similar to 3D printing.
Now you know!
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