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From Woodshed Miracle to Industrial Reality

Oberlin Chemist Refines Aluminum, Again


One crisp, clear night last November a crowd converged on Oberlin's Kettering Hall of Science to witness the reenactment of a momentous technological discovery that took place a century ago only a few blocks away.

In 1886 Oberlin alumnus Charles Martin Hall, barely 22 years old and only eight months out of college, transformed the metals industry worldwide by discovering the electrochemical process for refining aluminum. A semiprecious metal at the time, aluminum was about as costly as silver. If not for Hall and his Oberlin mentor, Frank Fanning Jewett, the Wright brothers might not have flown their plane at Kitty Hawk and we might not have inexpensive aluminum for construction, aerospace craft and other forms of transportation, long-distance electric power transmission, decoration and packaging.

The November throng included intent students and faculty from all disciplines, local residents (scientists and nonscientists), and Hall's great-grandniece, Emily Acton Philips, who travelled from Dallas to be among the spectators. They gathered to watch Oberlin chemistry professor Norman Craig '53, one of the nation's leading experts on Hall and his process, and double-degree senior Christopher Neese re-create what former Oberlin president Robert K. Carr once called the "woodshed miracle." Laconically billed as a lecture/demonstration celebrating National Chemistry Week, the presentation was a follow-up to the September festivities surrounding the American Chemical Society's designation of Oberlin as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

Neese, a chemistry, composition, and TIMARA major who bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Hall, assisted Craig at the lab table, on which sat a modern replica of one of Hall's Bunsen-Grove cells, glistening beakers, ominous glass jars and an electric pot furnace containing a graphite crucible similar to the one Hall fashioned by hand in his woodshed.

Working the equipment like a grizzled wizard, adjusting the furance's ceramic top and tweaking the power source as he talked to the audience, Craig explained that aluminum is the most abundant metallic element in nature and comes from aluminum oxide, so inert that it is used in firebricks and as a grinding agent.

"By dissolving aluminum oxide in cryolite at about 1000C (1830F) the oxide is converted into aluminum metal and gaseous carbon dioxide by means of an electric current.

"Other than being done at a high temperature, this electrochemical process is much like charging a lead-acid storage battery in an automobile."

While waiting for the contents of the crucible to heat to melting, Craig told the audience how he had tried to re-enact Hall's discovery twice before. A desire to encourage his daughter Julie's interest in science was the impetus for the first attempt; the father-daughter duo re-created the process for a school project of Julie's in the 1970s.

Thinking they had succeeded, Craig confidently volunteered to conduct the process for the 100th anniversary of Hall's discovery. But during a practice session, much to his dismay, he found that the shiny bits he and his daughter had taken for aluminum were actually pieces of graphite. "And only a month to go before the big event!" he recalled.

After consulting with his Oberlin colleague Terry Carlton, he added aluminum fluoride to the cryolite, a modification that eventually worked. But he wasn't in the clear yet.

"Would I be doing a re-creation of the Hall process, as advertised?" he recalled wondering. "How was I going to explain the problem?"

Just as he was making a final practice run, with the problem still unresolved, Craig received copies of the testimony Hall had given to a patent examiner. In that testimony, Hall said, "I added some aluminum fluoride."

Craig had unknowingly retraced Hall's route from repeated failure to success. Encountering frustrations similar to those Hall must have experienced and arriving at the same answer made Craig feel "a much closer association to him. I also felt that my experience brought the discovery process up to date for a modern audience."

And Craig's daughter? Julie Craig Lautens earned a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at Harvard. Hired as a chemist by the Glaxo-Wellcome Pharmaceutical Company in Toronto, she is now a quality-control manager for the company.

-By Betty Gabrielli