Building Frontiers with Aluminum
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 15 Feb 1951, p. 229-240


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DuBose, McNeely, Speaker
Media Type:
Text
Item Type:
Speeches
Description:
The speaker's experience in working with aluminum. Some statistics with regard to Canadian aluminum production. Reasons for the rapid increase in the use of aluminum and why the original producers are the ones who have always borne the brunt of expanding production facilities. The many unusual things about aluminum. The history of aluminum. Development in Canada. Research to develop strong alloys of aluminum. New techniques in rolling and drawing aluminum. The development of a real market. Sources of power. Going after foreign customers to sell aluminum around the globe. Effects of the depression. Power development at Shipshaw. Reasons why Alcan was able to expand aluminum production. Investment in Canada for aluminum production. Alcan's established policy of bringing down the price of aluminum to the fullest extent possible after a postwar recession. Looking toward new frontiers to provide low-cost hydro electric power in advance of the demand to further reduce the price of aluminum and thus expand the market. The development in British Columbia. Alcan ready to produce the required amount of aluminum quickly when called upon.
Date of Original:
15 Feb 1951
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
"BUILDING FRONTIERS WITH ALUMINUM"
An Address By McNEELY, DUBOSE, B.E., E.E. Vice-President, Aluminum Company of Canada
Thursday, February 15th, 1951
CHAIRMAN: The President, Mr. Sydney Hermant.

MR. HERMANT: Members and Guests of The Empire Club of Canada: One hundred years ago Aluminum was more precious than gold. It was known that there were tremendous quantities of aluminum ore available in the earth's crust but the problem was to extract it. In 1886 this problem was solved simultaneously by Charles Martin Hall of Oberlin, Ohio; and Paul Louis Herroult of France. Neither knew of the other's work. They were both 22 years of age and made the discovery in the same year. To climax this series of coincidences both died in 1914. It was 13 years after the discovery of the electrolytic process for making aluminum that the aluminum industry came to Canada. Construction was started on a small smelter at Shawinigan Falls and the first aluminum ingots were cast on Oct. 20th, 1901.

In the mid-twenties to meet the demand for increased aluminum production the City and Plant of Arvida were brought into being in Northern Quebec. Arvida was named after Arthur Vining Davis, a pioneer in the industry, and now Chairman of the Board of Aluminum Company of America. The huge plant at Arvida has brought the Saguenay Valley into a new era of social, civic and economic growth. To supply the plant with needed electricity the great Shipshaw Power Development was constructed; wharves were built at Port Alfred; railroads extended and thriving towns developed. In 1947 the Hydro Electric System of the Aluminum Co. of Canada in the Saguenay generated more than 20% of all the electrical energy produced in Canada. Today the Aluminum Co. of Canada, which is a subsidiary of Aluminium Limited, has 12 plants in Quebec and Ontario, the latest being in Etobicoke in the Toronto District. For the past several years the Aluminum Co. have been carrying on a preliminary survey of the Tweedsmuir Park area in British Columbia with a view to establishing a second Canadian Aluminum industry on the West Coast. It is, of course, purely coincidental that on this day, Thursday, Feb. 15th, 1951, the date set for the nationalization of the Steel Industry by the Labour Government of Great Britain, we should pay our tribute to the judgment, vision, energy and resourcefulness of those who have conceived and created this great free enterprise which has contributed so much to the industrial delevolpment of Canada and the Empire. To tell us about it we have as our guest today Mr. McNeely DuBose, the Vice-President of the Aluminum Co. who is the senior officer in charge of the operations in the Saguenay and the work being projected in British Columbia. Mr. DuBose has spent his entire lifetime closely associated with the development of Hydro Electric Power and the Aluminum Industry. In addition to his work in the United States and Canada he has served as an Engineer in Panama and in Spain. He is a Past-President of the Canadian Electrical Association, and Vice-President of the Engineering Institute of Canada. Mr. DuBose will now speak on the subject: "Building Frontiers With Aluminum".

MR. DU BOSE: I appreciate the honour of being asked to speak to the Empire Club of Canada and am happy to do so, for I am going to talk about aluminum which is always a pleasure to me. I have been working with aluminum for thirty-five years and very absorbing years they have been, for during that period the world's demand for aluminum has increased by fifteen times, Canadian aluminum production has increased twenty-five times, and Aluminum Company of Canada Limited and its group of companies around the world, now numbering some fifty and headed by Aluminium Limited, also a Canadian company, have crystallized a pattern of building new aluminum plants along the borders of habitation, which I call "Building Frontiers with Aluminum".

During this period the aluminum producers have felt obligated to keep pace with the demand and that has been a back breaking job at times. The reasons for the rapid increase in the use of Aluminum and why the original producers are the ones who have always borne the brunt of expanding production facilities are perfectly natural when understood and I am going to try briefly to explain them.

To begin with there are many unusual things about aluminum. It is the most plentiful metal in the world. Twice as much as iron; 1,000 times as much as copper, 2,000 times as much as zinc; 4,000 times as much as lead; and yet aluminum is far younger as a commercial metal. The reason is that, in nature, aluminum never occurs in the metallic state and it was only 125 years ago when the human eye first saw the metal aluminum.

Strange to say, aluminum was foretold years before it was seen. In 1807 Sir Humphry Davy prophesied the discovery of a light white metal and even named it, aluminum, derived from alum, the ore from which he, and many other scientists sought to produce the elusive metal.

The situation was something like that of a fisherman telling a friend of the enormous trout which got away. "Yes, he said, "It was a speckled trout all right, a real Fontinalis, but it was terrific, it was over two feet long and must have weighed twelve pounds. Its speckles were as big as dimes! Why, I could have put my whole fist in his mouth! I'll declare, I never saw such a fish." "Well," replied the friend, "I'm glad you've told the truth at last". And that's the way it was with the early searchers for aluminum. They could tell its description, its weight, and even its name, but no one had actually seen the metal, or could prove that he had seen it.

In 1826, a Danish chemist, named Aerstedt, at last produced bits of the metal by a complicated chemical process and it was renamed aluminum to correspond with alumina, the oxide from which it was most readily produced. Again, years later a European scientific group changed the name to aluminium--to line up with the "ium" group of metals, calcium, barium, strontium and so forth, but on this continent that change was never recognized. In our own group of companies the Aluminum Company of Canada Ltd., is the world's largest producer of aluminum as we call it, but our parent company Aluminium Limited, deals around the world in aluminium.

But aluminum was so hard to produce by chemical process that it remained little more than a curiosity. In 1855 Napoleon III ordered some to equip his army but it proved impractical on account of the high cost.

And then in 1886, a young chemist, named Charles Martin Hall, working in his father's barn in Ohio, and simultaneously Paul Herroult, in a corner of his father's machine shop in France, each discovered the electrical process by which aluminum could be produced inexpensively in large quantities. The process sounds simple. A natural salt called cryolite, mined in Greenland, is melted at 1000° C. in an iron pot lined with carbon. Pure aluminum oxide is dissolved in the molten cryolite, and a current of electricity is passed from a carbon electrode dipped in the cryolite, to the carbon lining of the pot. The electricity separates the metal from the red hot solution, and it collects in the bottom of the pot.

Young Hall took his process to Pittsburgh, where he, and backers who subscribed $20,000 for the venture, built the first aluminum plant, which was an electric powerhouse and a potroom, all enclosed in a 50 x 75 foot sheet iron shed. The equipment consisted of a 125 horsepower steam engine with two electric generators, half a dozen carbon-lined pots, about 4 ft. by 11/4 ft. by 2 ft. deep each with 20 carbon electrodes 3" in diameter hung by 1/2" copper rods from 2 copper clamp arms. The aluminum ore was kept in a five-gallon glass bottle. The aluminum metal was removed from the pots by dipping down through the molten cryolite with a small ladle. Each ladleful was cooled. The button of aluminum was cleaned, and stored in an old safe in a corner of the building. At last aluminum production was really under way on a big scale.

But the going was hard, and I will tell you something of those early days because they set the pattern which has made aluminum a "Frontier Builder".

The Pittsburgh plant could produce several tons of aluminum a year but the demand did not exceed one ton. The price had been brought down to $5.00 a pound but no one was tempted to use the new metal. The price was cut to $2.00 a pound, but even that did not create the needed demand, and the aluminum business was in a precarious way.

The people who had gone into the aluminum business had faith in its future, so they faced the facts and decided the price must be brought down to $1.00 a pound, but that would require a plant producing 100 tons per year. By superhuman effort the money was borrowed and a new plant was built at New Kensington, a few miles out of Pittsburgh where costs would be lower.

But the $1.00 price did not produce the required business. To promote consumption, the aluminum people built a rolling mill, a wire mill and a plant to produce cooking utensils, which they peddled from door to door. The demand for the new metal increased, but not fast enough. The price would have to be lowered further to attract the market, and that would require cheaper electric power, for electric power was the principal ingredient in the production of aluminum.

Niagara Falls, New York, was a small quiet town on the Canadian border, but it had waterfalls which should be able to produce electric power at less cost than by using steam. Hydro electric power was then almost unknown and its practicability uncertain, but courage carried the day and a long-term contract was made to purchase the then considered enormous amount of 2,000 electric horsepower. On the strength of that contract, the first so-called large hydro electric plant in North America was built and a new and larger aluminum plant commenced operation at Niagara Falls in 1895. With cheap power to spare over and above the needs of aluminum, Niagara Falls soon became a beehive of expanding industrial activity, and the role of aluminum as a "Frontier Builder" had begun..

Lowered price, and intensive research to develop strong alloys of aluminum, and to work out new techniques in rolling and drawing aluminum, were developing a real market for the metal and the success of the policy of reducing price to extend the demand soon set eyes wandering for more and cheaper hydro electric power.

On the St. Maurice River in Quebec was a fine power site. After much thought and study a long-term contract was made to purchase 5,000 horsepower from the Shawinigan Water & Power Company, which at that time had no power plants at all. Thus encouraged, the Shawinigan Company was able to finance and build the first major hydro electric power development in Canada, and in 1900 a new aluminum plant was commenced on the St. Maurice. Power was plentiful. Other business followed. People were attracted, and the Town of Shawinigan Falls was incorporated and became an industrial city. Another "Frontier" had been opened.

Years passed, the demand for aluminum grew and with lower prices and broader markets in view, cheaper and more plentiful power had to be found.

The Saguenay River, in Quebec's little-known Lake St. John region, would be a grand source of power--maybe too grand--for the smallest practical plant on that great stream would develop half a million h.p. For 20 years the owners of its power sites had sought in vain for a customer who might profitably settle in that remote area and consume hundreds of thousands of electric horsepower.

The answer turned out to be aluminum, which would bring its own raw materials with it--bauxite from the tropics, cryolite from Greenland, petroleum coke from Texas, and would require from the Saguenay only its wasting water power and a tidewater port for the entrance of its supplies. And so in 1926, the Isle Mailgne development on the Saguenay River began to supply electric power for aluminum on a new frontier at Arvida, Quebec. The Arvida potrooms would consume 100,000 h.p. and produce 30,000 tons of aluminum per year, and there was more power yet for expansion. But even 30,000 tons was far more aluminum than Canada could use, so why this great capacity? The answer involved a far-reaching decision. With more and cheaper aluminum, the Aluminum Company of Canada, Limited, which we call Alcan for short, planned to go after foreign customers and sell its aluminum around the globe.

That far-reaching decision included a plan to let the Canadian companies take over all foreign trade, and after 2 years of preparation the Aluminum Company of America, which had been the full owner of Alcan, sold to a new Canadian company called Aluminium Limited all of its mining, manufacturing and sales properties outside of the United States with the exception of the Dutch Guiana bauxite mines which were required for the continued operation of the old company. The stock of the new company was divided among the shareholders of the old company.

To those of us in Canada who had grown up with the Aluminum Company of America, the parting was quite a wrench, for the separation was complete. We in Canada were "on our own" with no "old folks" to lean on in times of stress.

But we were not downhearted. The old company might "stick to its knitting" at home if it wished, but we in Canada had visions of a tremendous output and reducing the price until Canadian aluminum was in demand all over the world.

With that high hope, construction was commenced at Shipshaw, to be the world's greatest power development. But then the depression struck. Only the first stage of Shipshaw was completed and even that stood practically idle until the war clouds gathered. Immediately the British wanted aluminum and quickly. Electric power would have been the bottleneck had it not been for the first stage of Shipshaw which was there standing by to carry the load. But the British Ministry of Aircraft production called for quantities of aluminum that would require a quarter of a million horsepower more than Shipshaw No. 1 could supply. Questions filled the air. Should the second stage of the Shipshaw development be commenced? How quickly could it be built? 250,000 h.p. was not enough to justify building Shipshaw No. 2 but, maybe, still more aluminum would be needed. Yes, but on the other hand maybe the war would be over before a job the size of Shipshaw could be finished. And how could such a huge job be financed? Shipshaw No. 2 would cost millions. In the face of that, should Alcan start the job?

Why, after all, should Alcan "stick its neck out"? Alcan was doing all right. If the project were successful, Alcan's income, after taxes, might not be increased. If not successful, Alcan would "lose its shirt", so to speak. So why do anything?

The answer to that question is extremely significant, for it supplies the second clue to Alcan's role as a frontier builder. The answer was simply this. Alcan must start Shipshaw No. 2 because: aluminum production had to be expanded as fast as possible, because building Shipshaw for the power and building potrooms at Arvida to use the power was the quickest way to expand production and because Alcan was the only group in Canada qualified to do the job.

That invites another question. Why was Alcan the only one in Canada qualified to expand aluminum production? Again the answer is simple. It was because an aluminum plant is so costly to build that no one else had ever tried it and learned how.

There is invested in Canada for aluminum production $33,000 for each and every one of the 12,000 Aluminum employees here, not including the sums invested abroad in mines for raw materials and in foreign sales outlets required for the Canadian business. The simple fact is that it would take so much more money to go into the aluminum business than any other sort of venture that no newcomer has ever been willing or able to tackle the job of building an aluminum plant on his own responsibility. So that is why there was none other in Canada to share with Alcan the risk and responsibility when it came to rapidly expanding aluminum production to meet the war's extraordinary demand.

So Alcan faced its self-imposed responsibility and completed Shipshaw in record time with its capacity of one and a half million horsepower and the aluminum smelters to go with it, and Alcan raised, on its own responsibility, every penny that went into the project. It worked so fast that the job was begun with only the promise by the Government of Canada to co-operate and to do all it could to assist the project other than by direct appropriation. Later an agreement was made allowing Alcan to take accelerated depreciation on the cost of the greater part of the project, at the penalty of losing that depreciation later on, a deal which has proved profitable since for both Canada and Alcan, and which at the time provided Canada and its Allies with quantities of much needed aluminum at a lower cost than that of any aluminum otherwise obtained by them.

After a postwar recession, Alcan's established policy of bringing down the price of aluminum to the fullest extent possible, coupled with the soaring prices of competitive metals, brought amazingly rapid results and soon the aluminum plants were again running full. The region was prosperous and growing, new industrial projects were pushing by toward the horizon and the Saguenay Valley was no longer a frontier.

So, once again, Alcan began to look toward new frontiers where it could continue its policy of being prepared to provide low-cost hydro electric power in advance of the demand to further reduce the price of aluminum as compared with competitive materials and thus expand the market.

As might be expected, the most intriguing locations are always the most difficult. Alcan sent investigators to British Columbia, Labrador, Norway, South America, Africa, Borneo and New Zealand from whence had come invitations telling of fine power sites. The pattern of Alcan's approach has been somewhat the same for each of these projects and I will give you a brief history of what has transpired in regard to Alcan's British Columbia power and aluminum project which is typical of the general procedure, up to a point.

Before I came to Canada 25 years ago, I had heard of a million horse power hydro electric site in British Columbia, but thought no more of it until 1941 when the Premier of that Province invited Alcan to consider British Columbia for an aluminum project. We sent several emmissaries to look things over, but Shipshaw No. 2 was ready for a start and when the pressure came to "get going", we concentrated on Shipshaw and the British Columbia project was dropped.

But in 1947, when Alcan was looking around for a new site, British Columbia again invited us to consider its possibilities. We did, and our engineers spent the summer of 1948 in the field and the winter in the office checking the British Columbia Government's engineering reports on three separate power sites on the West coast. Our engineers decided that two of these sites might be combined into one most attractive project. Since then they have worked continuously to determine by aerial photography and by measurements on the ground the heights, distances and river flows involved, and by digging, drilling and geological deductions the subsurface conditions to be encountered.

For this project the storage reservoir would be located in Tweedsmuir Park which lies at elevation 3,000 feet on British Columbia's rolling inland plateau just east of the coast range mountains and south of the trans-continental railway line to Prince Rupert. In this Park two parallel chains of lakes rise between the mountain peaks and extend eastward, and like the two legs of a wishbone they bend toward each other and meet 100 miles from their source to form the Nechako River, a tributary of the Fraser.

The main dam of the project would block the Nechako River canyon and hold back the water in each chain of lakes until it rose to the elevation of Lake Tahtsa, the most westerly lake of the northern chain. From Lake Tahtsa, tunnels would pierce 10 miles through the mountain range and the impounded water from the lakes would be dropped half a mile vertically through steel pipes within the rock to a powerhouse with 2,200,000 h.p. of generating equipment buried in the mountain beside the Kemano River, 10 miles about its mouth on Gardner Canal, a great fjord from the Pacific Ocean which cuts deeply into the coast range at that point.

From the powerhouse, an electric transmission line would extend 48 miles through mountain passes and over ridges to a site for a 500,000 ton per year aluminum plant site at the head of another deep fjord which the Kitimat River empties through a broad uninhabited valley which may some day boast a city of 50,000 people if aluminum goes to work on that frontier.

In truth, it is a frontier. A handful of people live on the northern shore of the more easterly lakes of the northern chain in Tweedsmuir Park and aside from that over the entire distance, almost 200 miles from the main dam site to the aluminum plant site, there is no one, only rugged virgin country. To invade it on such a scale and at such a rate is a fearsome thought as well as an enticing one. But building frontiers has always been a real challenge and as the pioneer becomes experienced, he is better equipped to invade more difficult locations.

Today, after 3 years of work and $7,000,000 spent, the scope and details of the project are well defined. And more than just engineering is underway. The access road to the powerhouse site is being built and commitments are now being made for hard-to-get construction equipment so that there need be no delay in getting this development under way. This project is the quickest and cheapest way to increase aluminum production on the prodigious scale forecast by Canada and its Allies for military purposes. As in the early days of Shipshaw, time is the essence of the problem of expanding aluminum production for war, and Alcan feels the obligation to be ready to produce the required amount of aluminum quickly when called upon.

Whether or not the call comes now remains to be seen, but when it does come Alcan expects to be ready and another new frontier will be in the making.

VOTE OF THANKS, moved by Mr. Ford Ralph, Second Vice-President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Building Frontiers with Aluminum


The speaker's experience in working with aluminum. Some statistics with regard to Canadian aluminum production. Reasons for the rapid increase in the use of aluminum and why the original producers are the ones who have always borne the brunt of expanding production facilities. The many unusual things about aluminum. The history of aluminum. Development in Canada. Research to develop strong alloys of aluminum. New techniques in rolling and drawing aluminum. The development of a real market. Sources of power. Going after foreign customers to sell aluminum around the globe. Effects of the depression. Power development at Shipshaw. Reasons why Alcan was able to expand aluminum production. Investment in Canada for aluminum production. Alcan's established policy of bringing down the price of aluminum to the fullest extent possible after a postwar recession. Looking toward new frontiers to provide low-cost hydro electric power in advance of the demand to further reduce the price of aluminum and thus expand the market. The development in British Columbia. Alcan ready to produce the required amount of aluminum quickly when called upon.