Sunday, March 9, 2014

The aluminum-ore bauxite, named after the village of Les Baux in Provence, France

Les Baux is a small town near St. Reny in the Bouches-du-Rhône department of the province of Provence in southwest France. Les Baux-de-Provence, as this beautiful and scenic village is often named, is a listed heritage site located in the heart of the Alpilles regional country park [1]. Near Les Baux, the ore bauxite was first discovered in 1821 by the geologist Pierre Berthier [2]. In 1847, Armand Dufrénoy named the ore beauxite. In 1861, Henri Sainte-Claire Deville, who discovered a method to separate kilogram amounts of aluminum from the ore's Al-containing constituents böhmite (γ-AlO(OH)), diaspore (α-AlO(OH)) and gibbsite (Al(OH)3), renamed the ore to bauxite [3].

Hugh Aldersey-Williams summarizes the isolation of aluminum (moniker: silver from clay) from bauxite and the metal's usefulness in his Periodic Tales as follows [4]:

This now ubiquitous material—as vital to us as steel and more visible than any of the metals known in antiquity—was only isolated as recently as the 1820s, and it was not until the 1850s that an even remotely commercial way was found to separate it from its ore, bauxite, named after Les Baux in Provence, where it is still possible to see the bleached quarry works on the hill above the town. The process developed by Henri Sainte-Claire Deville in Paris involved heating compounds of aluminium with sodium metal, which was itself exceptionally hard to obtain, and this made his aluminium hugely expensive. Though it scarcely seems credible now, aluminium was hailed as a new precious metal to be placed along with gold and silver—its sheer cost and exoticism compensating for its low density and diffuse shine—and it was worked and flaunted in ways that reflected this status.

Today, the sound of the ore name bauxite can be recognized in many languages—with language-specific variations mostly limited to spelling:
  • Danish: bauxit
  • Dutch: bauxiet
  • Finnish: bauksiitti
  • German: Bauxit
  • Italian: bauxite
  • Polish: boksyt
  • Portuguese: bauxita (or bauxite)
  • Spanish: bauxita

Keywords: mineral name, renaming, place name, locality, aluminium ore, aluminum ore, quarry works, metallurgy, mining, history.

References and more to explore
[1] Les Beaux-de-Provence: One of the most beautiful villages in France [www.lesbauxdeprovence.com/en].
[2] Fact Index: Bauxite [www.fact-index.com/b/ba/bauxite.html].
[3] alu: Bauxite & alumina history [bauxite.world-aluminium.org/mining/process.html].
[4] Hugh Aldersey-Williams: Periodic Tales: a cultural history of the elements, from arsenic to zinc. Harper-Collins Publisher, New York, NY 10022, 2011; page 255 [www.harpercollins.com/Srch/index.aspx?search=periodic tales].

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