Thousands of Uses for Aluminium Foil

Foil for household use is also a source of ideas for the most peculiar uses

by Giuseppe Giordano

Seventy years after the appearance on the American market of the first rolls for household use with the historical brand Reynolds Wrap, aluminium foil in its household version (HHF, House Hold Foil) represents an important share of this type of product which has many other applications as regards packaging, mechanics, building and construction, in the shielded cable sector, in flexible caps for bottles. In actual fact, so-called “tinfoil” which appears as rolls of thin aluminium sheet a few metres in length present in almost all of our kitchens and in all restaurants, inspired countless successful, unusual and very peculiar applications, which have been the subject of interesting and instructive contests for innovative ideas the world over. In this brief article some uses of foil are described, some being very far from the original and primary application deriving from shrewd observations and lots of imagination.

Domestic aluminium foil: the beginning
In the Thirties of the last century aluminium foil, which had up to that date been used primarily laminated with paper to pack tobacco, chocolate and chewing gum, began to be found for sale in American groceries to be used in many phases of barbecues, from protection against ashes to wrapping portions. Up till then, some of these asks were accomplished using tin foil, which is the origin of the term tinfoil, one of many denominations which to this date accompany aluminium foil. The issue of the name is worth a very brief digression, concerning the many “wrong” names which have been given to the foil used in kitchens. Besides the reference to tin, terms have been used which refer to silver such as “silver paper”, or the almost correct term of “aluminium paper” which is in any case not accurate on account of the thickness, since the thinnest paper is about 25 microns thick while thin aluminium foil is between 5 and 6 microns thick. Back to the timeline of aluminium in the Thirties, it should be noted that at the time sales of the product in the United States were very moderate in a country which was struggling to get back on its feet after the Great Recession. In 1947 the economic and social situation of the United States was completely different, at the end of a terrible but victorious war which had provided a strong drive to high technology industrial productions among which lamination of light alloys should be included. Two years after the end of the conflict some rolling mills which had produced sheet metal needed by the aeronautical industry during the war were still inactive, and six of these plants, federally owned, were purchased by Reynolds Metals. Reynolds’s great idea was changing the purpose of the plants, designed for semi-finished product meant even for war purposes, starting the production of a technologically simple metal sheet (the initial thickness was 20 microns), used for a purpose with great economic and social utility meant to favour the consumption of meat cuts which were not so much in demand. Reynolds Wrap was recommended for the consumption of cheaper cuts of beef in a way which was then new for the American consumer: the foil was used to wrap and cook a steak, then still known as a chop, the forerunner of the more famous hamburgers, obtained by mincing cheaper cuts. By adding vegetables and sauces the aluminium package became a complete meal and, especially for restaurant owners, the fact that use of pots and pans and washing of dishes could be simplified, generated savings. The product also had the blessing of the federal Government, engaged in favouring the consumption of all cuts of meat, and between 1947 and 1948 it began to be used in several States. The success in sales not only exceeded expectations, but it remained steady for all these years turning Reynolds Wrap, still the unrivalled market leader, into an authentic American icon.

Aluminium foil: unusual uses
As we said in the beginning, during the now long history of HF there have been many different uses. Lists and rankings may easily be found n the web. The following is the result of a non-exhaustive personal choice. Particularly, the list derives from some articles published during the past few years on magazines and newsletters of the health and savings sectors and to personal experience.

• Cleaning pots and pans
Take some aluminium foil and roll in into a sufficiently large ball. Then use it to clean pots and pans with burnt residues.

• Sharpening scissors
When scissors lose their edge, just cut several times a folded aluminium sheet to recover their functionality.

• Cleaning the iron
When the base of the iron is dirty, even with lime deposits, take a sheet of aluminium and after having sprinkled kitchen salt on it, iron it as though it were a garment. After a few strokes the plate will be clean.

• Cleaning silverware
Tarnished silver objects become shiny again when soaked for 20-30 minutes in hot salted water containing a large HHF sheet.

• Preserving the heat of heaters
Cover a wooden board with aluminium foil and place it behind a heater, in the top part, to prevent the loss of heat through the wall.
• Re-establishing the electrical
contact of batteries
Sometimes battery-powered toys or appliances stop working because one of the poles of the battery is deformed and does not make contact any more. To solve this problem in a few minutes, you can take a piece of aluminium foil, cut it to the right side and place it where the battery is supposed to make contact. Ensure that the battery is well in place then turn the appliance on again.
Highlights just like at the hairdresser’s
To lighten hair or highlight it, many hairdressers use aluminium foil instead of bonnets. Aluminium foil for hairdressers is very similar to kitchen foil apart from a different thickness (HHF = 10-13 micron; highlight sheet = 15-18 micron). Even though the techniques are very different, aluminium foil is better because bonnets break the hair at the roots.

Protection from electro-magnetic waves
This application has been one of the most peculiar and controversial ever since its appearance, about ten years ago, and refers to the use of strange home-made helmets to protect the skull from electro-magnetic waves, among them those produced by TV sets and cellphones. There is much debate going on regarding the utility of such helmets, especially in the USA, where there are groups and associations for and against them with heated debates between doctors and engineers on the opposite sides. As often happens different or opposing schools of thought have formed. Even serious institutions find it difficult to embrace either the thesis of the barrier’s efficacy or the opposite thesis which states that the foil, at certain frequencies, acts as a multiplier for the waves’ penetration. In this respect there is a study* carried out by four MIT researchers who ironically envisage that obscure powers might be involved in the promotion of HHF helmets, which would make it easier to control the contents of skulls! They therefore recommend the community of paranoiacs who believe in these arguments a few tricks to build more effective helmets.

* On the Effectiveness of Aluminium Foil Helmets: An Empirical Study – Ali Rahimi1, Ben Recht 2, Jason Taylor 2, Noah Vawter 2 17 Feb 2005. 1Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, MIT; 2Media Laboratory, MIT Vision barrier
Finally, a very interesting use which I only recently discovered during a conversation with a lady, a high-ranking official of the Italian Ministry of the Interior.
The problem is linked to the lady’s profession, since during her holidays by the beach she has the habit or the necessity of reading reports and files which might have somewhat left behind during the year, but would like to do so without giving up the possibility of relaxing on the beach. It is not easy to carry heavy volumes with the Ministry’s indicia and possibly the wording “confidential” evidently written on them. Beach umbrellas are often very close and during the holidays it is not ideal to attract curiosity especially on certain topics. For many years now the problem has been solved by lining the “beach” reports with HHF aluminium foil which is a formidable barrier against light and in this case against unsolicited curiosity. The same protection has been chosen for books meant to be read on the beach and which have nothing to do with the above-mentioned documents. Even in this case reading preferences are not shown to neighbours and besides covers resist very well to wet sand, accidental falls and other misadventures.

Less conventional uses of household aluminium foil are actually applications in everyday life of aluminium’s technical properties. Scissors may be sharpened because foil is covered with a very thin layer of aluminium oxide, which is abrasive and very hard. Batteries start working again because foil is a conductor for electricity and silver shines due to a well-known short-circuited redox reaction. The sheet is a total block against gas, water vapour and light, both for milk cartons and books by the seaside. Regarding the relationship between electro-magnetic waves and HHF, some more accurate experiments might be necessary before home-made thin foil helmets will be used hoping in their effective protection properties.