Automakers Use More Aluminum

Aluminum use in automobiles is climbing and projections are for steady increases in the future.

Ducker Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, conducted the 2002 North American Light Vehicle Aluminum Content Study on behalf of The Aluminum Association. According to the report, this year's average aluminum content for passenger cars and light trucks combined is 274 pounds. This reflects a 23-pound increase over the average of 251 pounds of aluminum Ducker estimated for all vehicles in 1999. Aluminum has passed plastic use in vehicles and is the third most used product in automobiles.

Dr. Richard Klimisch, The Aluminum Association, vice president, automotive, indicated that there are 400 to 500 pounds of aluminum now being used in sport utility vehicles.

The Ducker study also concluded that aluminum content in North American cars and light trucks is expected to continue growing at its current rate well into the foreseeable future. This study is consistent with related aluminum industry research that shows total auto industry usage of aluminum (as measured in tons procured) more than doubled for cars and even tripled for SUV's, pickups and minivans over the past decade.

"More than half the vehicles on the road now are minivans and SUV's," said Dr. Klimisch. "Highly recyclable aluminum allows automakers to make vehicles lighter yet stronger. It has low density, but high strength and allows us to reduce the weight in a car, which can allow the vehicle to accelerate faster, brake better, and have lower emissions and fuel usage. Many of the world's top performing vehicles, like the Ferrari 360 Modena are all aluminum."

According to Dr. Klimisch, "In the auto industry, 61 percent of the aluminum in vehicles is recycled aluminum. Automakers have to trace greenhouse emissions throughout the manufacturing of a vehicle. That includes the emissions from the creation of the metal. Automakers trace aluminum back to where it came from and the use of recycled aluminum requires 95 percent less energy to make than primary aluminum production does. Recycled aluminum can go back to the highest value use.

"There are no laws governing greenhouse gas emissions. Right now it is voluntary and companies can reduce their emissions by using recycled content products," he continued. "Also in Europe, gasoline prices are higher and there are tougher standards. U.S. automakers must meet these standards to be able to sell cars in Europe. Fuel prices in Europe push automakers to make more fuel efficient cars. In the U.S. automakers are driven by legislation."

One way automakers reduce fuel usage and emission rates is by increasing the amount of aluminum used thereby reducing the amount of heavier steel in autos.

According to a brochure released by The Aluminum Association, pound for pound aluminum is up to two-and-a half times stronger than steel and can absorb crash energy without shattering. Dr. Klimisch pointed out that the Audi A8 earned a perfect five star government crash test rating and is all aluminum.

Dr. Klimisch said, "American's experience with aluminum often is the easily crushable aluminum beverage can and aluminum foil. This has given the idea that aluminum isn't strong. They don't recognize how strong aluminum actually is. Cans are very thin, but they are strong for their size. As a demonstration, we took a 4,000 pound car and supported it on four six-packs of beverage cans, one under each wheel. Those few cans supported the 4,000 pound vehicle."

Aluminum cans are a slightly different alloy from auto aluminum, but the alloys are very similar. Dr. Klimisch explained that aluminum can production and recycling is a closed-loop business- aluminum cans go back to make more aluminum cans.

"Auto aluminum is found in all kinds of different components. Many of the hoods in the U.S. are now aluminum," explained Dr. Klimisch. "Truck lids, lift gates in SUV's, and most engines are aluminum. Some fenders, such as the Ford Explorer front fender, is aluminum and the Lincoln LS has all aluminum fenders. Aluminum can be used in almost every part of the vehicle."

Other aluminum products include frames, bumper beams, side-impact beams, engine cradles, chassis components and suspension components. In Europe there are a number of companies developing aluminum doors and Hydro Aluminum of Norway has developed an aluminum diesel engine.

Dr. Klimisch said, "It was the belief that diesel engines had to use cast iron because of the higher temperatures created by the engine. I can see a lot of diesel engines being converted to aluminum. Currently 60 percent of gas engines are aluminum."

For the last seven years, the fuel usage and emission standards on light trucks has been frozen, but that freeze is now over, said Dr. Klimisch. Currently, the National Institute of Highway Safety, which sets truck standards, is determining what the maximum should be for trucks. He believes that weight reduction will be a key factor in reducing emissions and fuel consumption.

"In the past, automobile makers tried to improve fuel economy by reducing the size of the vehicle to reduce the weight of the vehicle. With aluminum you can keep the size without the weight."

Another issue automakers are dealing with is "compatibility" between cars and trucks, said Dr. Klimisch.

"Because of the increase of light trucks and SUV's on the road, there are more and more car-truck crashes. In the crashes where a fatality is involved, 80 percent of the fatalities are to the people in the cars. Trucks on average weigh 900 pounds more than a car does. If you can take weight out of the truck, you can make them more compatible with the car," he said.

A truck using more aluminum also increases the payload ability of the truck. "Trucks can carry more because the structure of the truck weighs less.

"Class A trucks are mostly aluminum, as are the trailers, coal trains, and rail cars. The ability to carry more is another big driving force in increasing aluminum use," Dr. Klimisch said.

Highlights of the Ducker report include:

Aluminum content in the average passenger car increased 25 pounds to 267 pounds per vehicle.

Aluminum content in the average light truck increased 22 pounds to 279 pounds per vehicle.

Much of aluminum's growth can be attributed to large increased use in aluminum engine blocks (38.8 percent in 2002, up from 22.5 percent in 1999) and cylinder heads (85.5 percent in 2002, up from 69.4 percent in 1999).

An increase in the number of aluminum closure panels from 2.2 million parts in 1999 to 3.8 million parts in 2002.

An increase in aluminum wheel penetration from 58 percent in 1999 to 62 percent in 2002.

The high percentage of recycled aluminum used in new vehicle construction remains nearly constant (62 percent in 1999 and 61 percent in 2002).