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Nonferrous Metals


NONFERROUS METALS. Other than tin and nickel, the United States produces in commercial quantities all the major nonferrous metals, which include aluminum, copper, lead, and zinc. Since 1993, no tin mines have operated in the United States, and China and Indonesia together produce over half of the world's supply. The American nickel industry has little or no impact on the world market, which Russia, Canada, and, increasingly, Australia dominate. By 1999 primary production of nickel in the United States at least temporarily ceased because it became cheaper to import the metal than to mine and refine it domestically. By contrast, American production of copper, lead, zinc, and aluminum remains influential in the world market and of great significance to the domestic economy. Moreover, the demand for metals with special qualities, such as light weight, high electrical conductivity, and noncorrosive finish, is increasing, and non-ferrous metals represent the major source of supply to meet these demands. For example, the importance of titanium, increasingly used as a pigment in aeronautics and in medical implants, has grown, although the United States imports rather than exports this metal.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, following the already established pattern in other basic industries, the entire nonferrous metals industry underwent a period of rapid expansion and development, after which came concentration and consolidation. During the last decade of that century the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) emerged to monopolize that industry, and the same period also witnessed the incorporation of the Anaconda Copper Company, American Smelting and Refining, United States Mining Company, Phelps-Dodge Corporation, American Metals Company, and most of the other leading producers of zinc, lead, and copper. The large corporate units that characterize the nonferrous metals industry resulted mostly from the advantages enjoyed by well-financed, large-scale operations in finding, extracting, processing, and marketing minerals. The "delivered price" or "basing point" price system characteristic of the metals industries prevails throughout the nonferrous metals market. While in itself the system does not ensure price uniformity, in actuality industries so in harmony on one aspect of pricing seldom have serious difficulty agreeing on others.

The first nonferrous metal to be mined and smelted in the United States was lead. English colonists exploited the small deposits along the eastern seaboard, and by 1720 the French had begun to work the Missouri lead mines. The Missouri mines have been in continuous production since the first underground mining began in 1798. Missouri and Alaska are the two largest domestic producers of lead.

The opening of the Missouri lead region to American settlers and the discovery of lead in the Wisconsin-Illinois Fever River district occasioned one of the first mineral rushes into the American West by eager miners. The rapid influx of miners, coupled with strong pressure from aspiring entrepreneurs, prevented the federal government from enforcing its policy of retaining ownership of some mineral deposits and led it to grant leases to miners and smelters to exploit the deposits. Even in the Fever River district, where the federal leasing policy existed in some form until the 1840s, the government agents experienced chronic difficulty in collecting rents and regulating smelters. By the end of the 1840s, the federal government had abandoned the leasing policy and opened mineral lands to unrestricted exploitation.

Development of the extensive western mines after the Civil War greatly augmented domestic lead production, and by 1881 the United States was the leading lead producer in the world. During the years immediately prior to World War I, the United States annually accounted for more than one-third of the total lead output. After World War II, domestic production averaged slightly over 1 million tons annually, about 20 percent short of domestic consumption. At the end of the twentieth century, only Australia ranked ahead of the United States in lead production. Although traditional uses for lead in water pipes, paint, and pigments declined, the increased demand for automobile batteries, gasoline additives, and chemicals more than offset the loss of the former markets. In 1999 lead-acid batteries stood as the single most significant use of lead in the United States.

Nonetheless, awareness of the extreme toxicity of lead, especially to small children, increased in the mid-twentieth century. By 1970 federal legislation banned lead in household paint, while 1990 marked the last year that leaded gasoline was available for purchase. Old lead water pipes continue to present a potential public health hazard, as they can leach metal into drinking water.

Unlike lead, zinc was not put into commercial production until toward the end of the nineteenth century. Only small quantities were smelted before the first commercially successful smelter in the United States began production in 1860. The then-known zinc deposits were not easily beneficiated, and the smelting process was difficult and costly, which rendered zinc too expensive for widespread use The only substantial demand for zinc was as a component in brass. The opening of the Joplin, Missouri, zinc ore district in 1871–1872 provided an easily mined, easily concentrated, and comparatively easily smelted ore. More importantly, the concurrent huge growth in the galvanizing and munitions industries created an effective demand for zinc metal. By 1907 the United States led the world in zinc production, and ten years later, it annually supplied more than 60 percent of the world output. Until World War II, the United States continued to be a net exporter of zinc, and only since then has domestic production been insufficient to supply national demand. As long as the United States remained a net exporter, the domestic price, often protected by tariffs, operated without dependence on the world market. In 2000 the United States ranked fifth in the world in zinc production, after China, Australia, Canada, and Peru, but it was still the largest consumer of the metal.

Most zinc is now used for galvanizing and diecasting. The next most prevalent use has been in brass products and zinc pigments. The rapid growth of the zinc industry in the early twentieth century relates in part to the development of the froth flotation process for mineral concentration. This process provided smelters with so many additional ore supplies that it practically revolutionized the entire nonferrous metals industry prior to World War I. The later development of differential media separation, which provided an inexpensive means of separating different components of complex ores, allowed the economic exploitation of lower-grade and more complex ores than before, which again greatly expanded domestic production.

Long before Europeans made contact with the Western Hemisphere, American Indians were working copper, perhaps the world's oldest metal, for fishhooks and ornaments. Nevertheless, the commercial copper industry in the United States started only in the 1840s with the discovery of old Indian mines in Michigan, and for the next forty years the Lake Superior region produced most of the copper in the United States. With the discovery of the great western mines, especially at Butte, Montana, in the 1880s, the United States became the principal producer of copper in the world. Today, the United States remains a leading producer of this nonferrous metal, second only to Chile, although American production has leveled off while Chile's continues to rise. Whereas the Lake Superior copper occurs as native metal and requires no complicated metallurgical process, some of the more complex western ores require leaching with an acidified solution and the separation of the copper from the resulting copper sulfate solution by an electrolytic process.

The most dramatic development in copper mining and manufacturing occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century when massive deposits of porphyritic ores, often containing no more than 1 percent copper, were first successfully exploited by D. C. Jackling, a prominent American mining engineer. Jackling demonstrated that the huge porphyry deposits at Bingham, Utah, could be profitably developed by utilizing open-pit mining and large-scale operations that permitted significant economies of scale. A large portion of the world copper supply subsequently came to be produced from porphyritic ore bodies.

The rapid growth of the copper industry paralleled the expansion of the major copper-consuming industries—electrical, automobile, construction, and mechanical refrigeration. In addition, large quantities of copper are used as alloys, especially by the American brass industry. Under favorable price ratios, aluminum and magnesium are close substitutes for copper in transmission lines and in certain die castings, but for the most part the demand for copper has increased within normal price ranges.

Although aluminum is the most abundant of all metallic elements found in the earth's crust, it was the last of the common nonferrous metals to be commercially exploited. Until the introduction of the electrolytic process in 1886, developed simultaneously but independently by Charles Martin Hall and Paul Louis Toussaint Héroult, the price of aluminum had been much too high for industrial uses. Within five years after its development, the Hall-Héroult process reduced the price from more than eight dollars to less than one dollar a pound. In 1888 Hall convinced a group of Pittsburgh entrepreneurs to form the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, later the Aluminum Company of America, to exploit his process, and until 1941 Alcoa was the sole producer of primary aluminum in the United States. In 1937 the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Alcoa but lost the appeal in 1945 when Judge Learned Hand ruled that, whereas Alcoa did have a monopoly when the suit was first filed, the existence and pending disposal of government-built wartime facilities threatened that monopoly. Judge Hand ruled that, pending "judicious" disposal of the government facilities, remedial action should be held in abeyance. The lease and ultimate sale of those facilities to the Reynolds Metals Company and Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Company ended the Alcoa monopoly, and since 1946, a number of metal firms have entered the aluminum reduction industry. However, as of 2002, Alcoa still exerted strong leadership in the industry.

The demand for aluminum accelerated rapidly after World War II as both domestic and world production increased and the price of aluminum dropped, which made it competitive with other nonferrous metals for a great variety of uses. In the 1970s the United States accounted for nearly 40 percent of the world output and consumed approximately the same proportion. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the American aluminum industry was producing 22 billion pounds of metal a year, a level of output that has allowed the United States to remain the leading producer of aluminum. Leading domestic consumers included the building and construction, transportation, electrical, and containers and packaging industries.

Although the automotive industry is the single biggest domestic market for aluminum, most American consumers most likely associate aluminum with soft-drink cans. Because of this metal's sustained recyclability, manufacturers may repeatedly use and reuse aluminum without a decline in quality. Thus, during the last two decades, aluminum recycling has become a widespread and cost-effective practice. Most recycled aluminum comes from beverage cans, and most beverage cans now undergo recycling.


Fahey, John. Hecla: A Century of Western Mining. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.

Francaviglia, Richard V. Hard Places: Reading the Landscape of America's Historic Mining Districts. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Graham, Margaret B. W., and Bettye H. Pruitt. R&D for Industry: A Century of Technical Innovation at Alcoa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Lankton, Larry D. Cradle to Grave: Life, Work, and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

———. Beyond the Boundaries: Life and Landscape at the Lake Superior Copper Mines, 1840–1875. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Smith, Duane A. Mining America: The Industry and the Environment, 1800–1980. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987.

Smith, George David. From Monopoly to Competition: The Transformations of Alcoa, 1888–1986. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.


James D.Norris

See alsoAluminum ; Anaconda Copper ; Copper Industry ; Lead Industry ; Mineralogy ; Recycling ; Smelters ; Trusts ; Zinc Industry .

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ALUMINUM, the most useful of the nonferrous metals, was first isolated in metallic form in 1825 by Hans Christian Oersted in Denmark. The metal remained a laboratory curiosity until 1854, when Henri Sainte-Claire Deville discovered a process using metallic sodium as a reductant that led to the first commercial production of aluminum. The price of the metal fell from $545 per pound in 1852 to $8 in 1885, and uses for the lightweight metal began to increase greatly. Emperor Napoleon III of France, for example, considered outfitting his army with lightweight aluminum armor and equipment, but the price of the metal remained too high for widespread use.

In 1886, an American, Charles Martin Hall, and a Frenchman, Paul Héroult, independently discovered that aluminum could be produced by electrolyzing a solution of aluminum oxide in molten cryolite (sodium aluminum fluoride). The electrolytic process won immediate acceptance by the commercial industry and in 2002 remained the sole commercial method used for making aluminum.

Hall's invention led to the formation of the Pittsburgh Reduction Company in 1888. This company, now known as Alcoa (for Aluminum Company of America), initially produced fifty pounds of aluminum per day, becoming by the turn of the twentieth century the world's largest producer of aluminum, a position it still enjoys in 2002. A more diverse aluminum industry developed in Europe. Within ten years, firms operated in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, and Scotland—all having obtained rights to Héroult's patents to make the metal. By 1900 total world production was about 7,500 short tons; American production was 2,500 tons.

The advent of the airplane in World War I greatly increased demand for the lightweight metal. In 1918 the primary capacity in the United States had grown to 62,500 short tons; world production amounted to 143,900 tons. Steady growth of the aluminum industry continued, and in 1939 the United States produced 160,000 tons of the 774,000 tons produced worldwide. The airplane became a key factor in waging World War II, and aluminum production throughout the world tripled; in the United States it grew sixfold. Another major period of growth in the industry took place during the Korean War, when the United States produced almost half of the world total of 3,069,000 tons. In 1972 total world production of aluminum came to some 12 million tons, but the American share, produced by twelve companies, had dropped to 34 percent, or 4,122,000 tons. By 2000, the aluminum industry in the United States operated more than three hundred plants in thirty-five states, employed more than 145,000 people, and produced an average of 11.5 million tons of aluminum annually.

Aluminum is the most abundant metallic element in the earth's crust. It is made from the mineral bauxite (hydrated aluminum oxide), which is found in plentiful supply throughout the tropical areas of the world. Five countries, Jamaica, Surinam, Guyana, Guinea, and Australia, mined about 61 percent of the world's supplies in 1972, with the remainder coming from twenty-two other countries. At the end of the twentieth century, the U.S. aluminum industry relied to a roughly equivalent degree on production from domestic ore materials (34.3 percent of production in 2000), imported ingots and mill products (33.5 percent), and recycled scrap materials (32.2 percent).

The great growth in the use of aluminum metal indicates its versatility. It has a unique combination of useful properties: lightness, good thermal and electrical conductivity, high reflectivity, malleability, resistance to corrosion, and excellent tensile strength in alloyed form. It is extensively employed in building and construction, where each new house uses almost four hundred pounds of the metal for such items as windows, doors, and siding. Another major market is transportation: the average automobile uses almost eighty pounds of aluminum, and truck and railroad car bodies use aluminum extensively because each pound of weight saved permits an extra pound of revenue-producing payload. The aerospace industries are also large consumers of aluminum. There are many electrical applications because it is one-third as heavy and roughly two-thirds as conductive as copper. Applications for the metal are also growing rapidly for containers and packaging, where it is used in cans, foil, and frozen-food containers. Indeed, the metal's versatility suggests countless possible applications.


Van Horn, Kent R., ed. Prepared by engineers, scientists, and metallurgists of Aluminum Company of America. Aluminum. Vol. 2, Design and Application. Metals Park, Ohio: American Society for Metals, 1967.

Kenneth B.Higbie/c. w.

See alsoAircraft Industry ; Automobile Industry .

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