Innovation, Abundance and the Lesson of Aluminum

The discovery of aluminum is a perfect example of a once-scarce resource that became suddenly cheap and plentiful, thanks to advances in technology. This kind of disruptive innovation is becoming more commonplace, which means the world will soon be enjoying abundance on a scale never seen before in human history, predict Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler in their new book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.

Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder, was born in Italy in the year AD 23. He was a naval and army commander in the early Roman Empire, later an author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, best known for his Naturalis Historia, a thirty-seven volume encyclopedia describing, well, everything there was to describe. His opus includes a book on cosmology, another on farming, a third on magic. It took him four volumes to cover world geography, nine for flora and fauna, and another nine for medicine. In one of his later volumes, Earth, book XXXV, Pliny tells the story of a goldsmith who brought an unusual dinner plate to the court of Emperor Tiberius.

The plate was a stunner, made from a new metal, very light, shiny, almost as bright as silver. The goldsmith claimed he’d extracted it from plain clay, using a secret technique, the formula known only to himself and the gods. Tiberius, though, was a little concerned. The emperor was one of Rome’s great generals, a warmonger who conquered most of what is now Europe and amassed a fortune of gold and silver along the way. He was also a financial expert who knew the value of his treasure would seriously decline if people suddenly had access to a shiny new metal rarer than gold. “Therefore,” recounts Pliny, “instead of giving the goldsmith the regard expected, he ordered him to be beheaded.”

This shiny new metal was aluminum, and that beheading marked its loss to the world for nearly two millennia. It next reappeared during the early 1800s but was still rare enough to be considered the most valuable metal in the world. Napoléon III himself threw a banquet for the king of Siam where the honored guests were given aluminum utensils, while the others had to make do with gold.

Aluminum’s rarity comes down to chemistry. Technically, behind oxygen and silicon, it’s the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, making up 8.3 percent of the weight of the world. Today it’s cheap, ubiquitous, and used with a throwaway mind-set, but—as Napoléon’s banquet demonstrates—this wasn’t always the case. Because of aluminum’s high affinity for oxygen, it never appears in nature as a pure metal. Instead it’s found tightly bound as oxides and silicates in a claylike material called bauxite.

While bauxite is 52 percent aluminum, separating out the pure metal ore was a complex and difficult task. But between 1825 and 1845, Hans Christian Oersted and Frederick Wohler discovered that heating anhydrous aluminum chloride with potassium amalgam and then distilling away the mercury left a residue of pure aluminum. In 1854 Henri Sainte-Claire Deville created the first commercial process for extraction, driving down the price by 90 percent. Yet the metal was still costly and in short supply.

It was the creation of a new breakthrough technology known as electrolysis, discovered independently and almost simultaneously in 1886 by American chemist Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult, that changed everything. The Hall-Héroult process, as it is now known, uses electricity to liberate aluminum from bauxite. Suddenly everyone on the planet had access to ridiculous amounts of cheap, light, pliable metal.

Save the beheading, there’s nothing too unusual in this story. History’s littered with tales of once rare resources made plentiful by innovation. The reason is pretty straightforward: scarcity is often contextual. Imagine a giant orange tree packed with fruit. If I pluck all the oranges from the lower branches, I am effectively out of accessible fruit. From my limited perspective, oranges are now scarce. But once someone invents a piece of technology called a ladder, I’ve suddenly got new reach. Problem solved. Technology is a resource-liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce the now abundant.

How does this story translate to today’s world?

We’re poised to make greater gains in the next two decades than we have in the previous 200 years. Because of new, transformational technologies and three powerful forces (explained in the book), we will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs for every man, woman and child on the planet. Abundance for all is actually within our grasp.

A great example is wireless technology. Over the past 20 years wireless technologies and the internet have become ubiquitous, affordable and available to almost everyone. Africa has skipped a technological generation, by-passing the landlines that stripe our Western skies for the wireless way. Today, a Maasai warrior with a cellphone has better telecom capabilities than the President of the United States did 25 years ago. If he’s a Maasai warrior on a smart phone with access to Google, then he has access to more information than the President did just 15 years ago. By the end of 2013, over 70 percent of humanity will have access to instantaneous, low-cost, communications and information. In other words, we are now living in a world of information and communication abundance. For the first time ever, these “Rising Billion” will have their voices heard becoming both a producing and consuming segment of humanity.

Excerpted from Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler.