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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 April 2005, 18:15 GMT 19:15 UK
Aluminium maker Alcoa shows its mettle
By Alex Ritson
BBC World Service business reporter

Little more than a century ago aluminium was a semi-precious metal, scarcer than silver.

Orville and Wibur Wright's 'Wright Flyer' takes its first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on 17 December,1903
The Wright Brothers used aluminium in their first plane

Total annual US production weighed less than the average person. But that all changed in 1886, when an American chemistry student discovered a process that would make the metal commercially viable.

His name was Charles Martin Hall, and the firm he founded, the Aluminum Company of America, now known as Alcoa, is still the biggest player in the global aluminium industry.

Alcoa's aluminium was used to make the engine which powered the world's first aeroplane, flown by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903.

Then came World War Two, and US demand for aluminium doubled.

Green credentials

These days Alcoa's aluminium is used in an increasing number of products, from high performance cars to beer bottles.

Earlier this month the company reported first quarter revenues of $6.3bn (3.4bn).

Steve Larkin, president of America's Aluminium Association, argues the industry is one that can boast of impeccable green credentials.

Overall, the process of making aluminium is still very damaging to the environment
Clare Wilson, Friends of the Earth

"Almost 70% of the aluminium ever produced is still in use. You can reuse the same aluminium for a similar purpose over and over again and it takes only 5% of the energy the second time round from recycled materials," he says.

In a recent study of the environmental sustainability of 2,000 global companies, Alcoa made it into the top three.

The survey, which was published during the World Economic Forum in Davos, in January, was carried out by researchers Innovest for campaign group the Corporate Knights. Devon Craigo was one of the researchers.

"What we've seen is Alcoa branch out and partner with auto companies including DaimlerChrysler, Audi and Volvo to provide products that reduce the weight of vehicles, and that, of course, improves vehicle fuel economy and reduces emissions," he says.

Environmental damage

But not everyone is convinced. Clare Wilson, from the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth, says the green credentials of aluminium are being overstated.

Aluminium ingots
Alcoa's aluminium is used in planes, cars and even beer bottles

"Yes it's light, and that can bring benefits in fuel savings, but it's extremely energy intensive to make," she says.

"The raw material itself, which is called bauxite, is mostly wasted in the process of refining the metal. Overall, the process of making aluminium is still very damaging to the environment."

Even though the price of aluminium has risen in value by almost a half in recent months, it was at near record lows only two years ago.

The recent weakness of the dollar does not help Alcoa - which has to pay a workforce of more than 130,000 people spread over 42 countries.

Neither does the fact that its potential for making profits is partly decided by the events in a small room on the other side of the Atlantic ocean - the London Metal Exchange.

Airbus boost

As with any market system, it is levels of supply and demand which set prices and therefore profitability.

Just as the Wright brothers and their aeroplane helped build a whole new line of business for Alcoa, the post 9/11 downturn for the aviation industry was bad news for anyone who sells aluminium for a living.

But that could be about to change.

In January, European leaders including Britain's Tony Blair and France's Jacques Chirac gathered in Toulouse for the official unveiling of the biggest passenger jet in the world, the Airbus A380.

The plane's wingspan is almost the length of a football pitch - and it is almost entirely made of Alcoa's aluminium alloys.

But even if the A380 does not sell in the numbers that Airbus is hoping for, Alcoa will not be too worried. All the main rivals to Airbus are customers of Alcoa too.

Aluminium Association president, Steve Larkin
"Almost 70% of the aluminium ever produced is still in use."

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