Approximately 75% of European production (2013: over 840,000t) is used for packaging and household foil and 25% is used in technical applications. European domestic and professional consumers use more than 120,000t of aluminium household foil annually.
Household foil was successfully introduced in the US in the late 1920s. In the mid-1930s the European alufoil sector began to produce rolls of household foil for the domestic kitchen as either a tear-off the product on rolls or as loose sheets in bags. Marketed as "sterile, free from bacteria, clean and trouble-free and reusable" household aluminium foil quickly gained popularity.
Apart from its many well-known uses in the kitchen – wrapping foods for cooking to retain moisture, for grilling or covering and wrapping food going into the refrigerator or freezer – this versatile material also gained a reputation for other interesting and novel ways it can be used. Some of these are alive and well today: such as wrapping Easter Eggs and soaps; as a strip behind radiators to reflect heat back into the room or to scrub cooking residue from barbecue grills; decoration on serving dishes; and even as a scarecrow with the strips continuously sparkling in the wind.
Aluminium, the third most abundant element on the earth’s crust after oxygen and silicon, is extracted from an ore called Bauxite. The ore is refined to make ‘alumina’, a pure aluminium oxide. The aluminium metal is then produced from alumina by passing an electric current through it in a process called ‘electrolytic reduction’. The resulting silvery metal is the basis of a wide range of alloys made by adding small amounts of other metals to provide the specific characteristics needed for each application. For most packaging, almost pure aluminium is used. But increasingly alloys are being ‘tailored’ in order to add strength and allow for reductions in thickness for the same performance.
It is produced by first rolling heated ingots (hot-rolling) down to coils of thickness between 2 and 4mm. The coils are then successively cold rolled to the required foil thicknesses. A second foil rolling method, continuous casting, bypasses the ingot stage and converts molten metal directly into a thick strip which is immediately rolled into the coil from which the foil is then rolled.
To obtain the very thinnest foils, two layers are rolled simultaneously. This ‘double rolling’ results in the difference between the two surfaces – matt and polished – the matt side being the inner side during double rolling. The two layers of aluminium foil are then separated. The resulting large reels are slit to the widths needed for further processing for the required end-use – flexible packaging, foil containers, lidding foils, household foil, heat exchanger foil, laminations for heat insulation materials, etc.
Alufoil’s total barrier to light, gases and moisture is the principal reason for its wide use for food and drink applications. Even when very thin it provides perfect protection and preservation of aroma and product characteristics. It can help to extend the viable life of sensitive products and helps to prevent spoilage As a result it also can provide significant energy savings.
Light yet strong, aluminium foil has unique dead fold characteristics which make it ideal for wrapping and re-wrapping many different products and product shapes. When pressed into a shaped dish, the aluminium foil memorises its shape, particularly where the folds and rims occur. Because it is very malleable it can be easily deformed without losing its barrier integrity, making it an ideal material for use in households.