Home appliances—the washing machine, dryer, refrigerator and laptop—exist as they are today because of aluminum’s light weight, structural strength and thermal characteristics. Iconic brands stretching from West Bend’s 1970 Presto Cooker to Apple’s iPod, iPad and iPhone share a single, common characteristic: the use of aluminum.
Within two years of the end of World War II, large manufacturers had shifted their plants to produce ultra-modern labor-saving devices: electric washing machines and dryers first among them. From the start, these revolutionary consumer machines boasted the 1950s-chic white enamel finish. Consumer washer and dryer appliances were viable in large part due to the lightweight nature of their aluminum frames. Aluminum-frame refrigerators followed, as the metal is the ideal material for refrigeration appliances. Its metallurgical characteristics transmit heat rapidly, which facilitates the cooling process and guarantees highly efficient refrigeration. Modern refrigerators would not exist as they are today without the lightweight and thermal conductivity advantages of aluminum.
Aluminum home appliances took another step up in futuristic visual appeal in the late 1980s. Inspired by modern look of brushed aluminum panels, manufactures began to produce entire lines of brushed aluminum appliances. Today, the “brushed aluminum kitchen” is regarded as a chic statement of style, ergonomics and efficiency.
The use of aluminum in consumer electronics started, in part, with the innovative designs that came from the engineering labs of Apple. The company popularized aluminum laptops in 2003 with the introduction of the aluminum PowerBook G4. In 2008, Apple took the lead in yet another revolutionary use of aluminum, through its development of unibody enclosures. The unibody manufacturing process carves a chassis out of a single block of aluminum. Unibody chassis were first featured in the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops.
Aluminum chassis for HDTVs provide the strength and protection necessary for the delicate electronics and screen of an HDTV. The lightweight nature of the metal means that widescreen TVs can be safely mounted on standard walls without internal or external bracing. The 50-pound aluminum chassis of a 40-inch HDTV would come in at a wall-straining 100 pounds or more, were the casing to be made of steel.
As compared to gold or silver, aluminum nanostructures display optical resonances in a larger cross-region of the spectrum. Research now indicates that aluminum nanoparticle technology may be the best candidate for harvesting solar energy and for other large-area optical devices. (They would be too expensive to produce with other elemental and precious metals.)
To trace the history of aluminum in appliances is to trace the history of cookware. In 1911, Bernhardt Ziegler, an entrepreneur who had organized his own fire insurance company (while still in high school), set out to find an industry for his Wisconsin home town (West Bend). Impressed by the growth of aluminum cookware companies in other parts of the country, he recruited an investment team and together they invested $7,000 to start a company. The West Bend Aluminum Company was born. West Bend expanded its aluminum cookware product lines for 50 years. In the 1960s, the company pioneered early uses of aluminum in small commercial buffet appliances. During the 1970s, West Bend introduced a new product line called “specialty electrics.” Built with aluminum frames and parts, these included such appliances as an electric pizza baker, yogurt maker, an automatic egg cooker and the “Fryette.” West Bend then brought aluminum appliances to iconic status, in part through television advertisements for products such as the Presto Cooker.
In 2007, Apple CEO Steve Jobs released a letter recommending changes to the company's environmental policy so as to achieve “a greener Apple.” Jobs specifically noted the company’s adoption of aircraft-grade aluminum in order to improve recycling uptake. (This coincided with Apple’s shift to unibody enclosures in 2008.) At the time, Jobs forecasted that Apple would increase recycling effectiveness from 9 percent in 2006 to 28 percent in 2010. The company achieved a 66 percent recycle rate in 2009 and has set a goal of 70 percent for 2015.