The Metal That Started Trump’s Trade War



Matthew Phillips and Joe Deaux | Bloomberg

Working at the Century Aluminum Co. smelter in Hawesville, Ky., can be like having a job in an oven. The interior temperature hovers around 140F, which isn’t necessarily hotter than, say, your typical steel mill. What’s especially hellish about an aluminum smelter is how close you have to stand to bubbling vats of molten, electrified metal.

Workers wear helmets, masks, and heavy, fire-retardant clothing. They look like smoke jumpers. Over a 12-hour shift they’ll lose several pounds of water weight as they peer over cauldrons, occasionally stirring 1,700-degree liquid aluminum with long metal rods. They wear earplugs against the hum of 170,000 amps surging through the mixture, which chemically breaks down ore. The air itself feels charged—and smells like the blended aromas of an overheated car engine and a sweaty fistful of coins. If you breathe through your mouth, you can taste the metal on your tongue. The Hawesville smelter makes some of the world’s highest-purity aluminum, and it’s the only one in the U.S. that mass-produces the military-grade kind needed for fighter jets and tanks. Yet the method it uses isn’t that different from how aluminum was made in 1886, when Charles Martin Hall, an Alcoa Corp. co-founder, first shot an electrical current through a mineral bath of aluminum oxide. The process has become more efficient over time, but no one’s figured out a better way to separate oxygen atoms from aluminum atoms. The business is stubbornly dirty, expensive, and dependent on human labor. Read more here