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Jordan Perch loves automotive innovation and that is his ultimate passion. He is managing the resourceful DMV.com and is an active contributor to numerous consumer and automotive blogs.

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Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

Posted October 17, 2014 12:37 PM by Jordan Perch

Governments all over the world are imposing tougher emissions standards as an important step in the fight against global warming, forcing car manufacturers to make cleaner vehicles and imposing fines for those who fail to meet the new regulations. Faced with challenging deadlines to reduce carbon emissions, automakers are increasingly trying to find new ways for cutting vehicle weight, as one of the most important factors contributing to fuel consumption and consequently, greenhouse gas emissions.

With car makers trying to save weight, they use innovative materials in the manufacturing process, increasingly replacing steel - which has been the dominant material in car production for decades - with materials like aluminum and carbon fiber, since they are much lighter and can have an immediate impact on a car's emission levels. But, both of these alternatives are way more expensive than steel, which is why automakers have only been using them for a small number of parts so far, as making entire cars out of aluminum or carbon fiber would not be economically viable.

However, while carbon fiber continues to be used exclusively by high-end automakers due to its high price, aluminum has become significantly cheaper over the past couple of years, leading to a growing use in the auto industry, threatening steel's dominant position. The aluminum industry has made some great strides in its efforts to become a serious competitor to steel manufacturers, with aluminum slowly, but surely, finding its way into more and more vehicles. At the moment, several large automakers are using aluminum extensively, including Tesla, Audi, and GM, in addition to Ford, which made a great breakthrough with the introduction of the F-150 pick up truck, featuring a body made largely out of aluminum. Ford was able to cut 700 pounds of the truck's weight by switching from steel to aluminum for its body panels.

Although incorporating aluminum components in vehicles raises purchase price, it can reduce ownership costs in the long-term, since aluminum parts are touted as pretty strong and durable, eliminating the need for frequent repairs or purchasing replacement parts.

What's more, the fact that aluminum is far more recyclable than steel makes it that much more eco-friendly, even though the production process generates more carbon emissions. According to the Aluminum Association, almost 75% of all aluminum produced since the late 19th century is still in use today. On the other hand, steel manufacturers are understandably not ready to give up on the auto industry, and are developing new types of steel that is lighter and stronger, but still more affordable than aluminum. High-strength steel has been gaining in popularity lately, with a few car companies, including Volkswagen and Honda, using it to make vehicle body structures and frames, and it can reduce vehicle weight drastically, but this material in still in sort of a developing phase and is not that much less expensive than aluminum.

In any case, steel's dominance in the auto industry is under a serious threat by aluminum, and steel makers need to be more aggressive and find ways for producing more lightweight, more affordable types of steel, given the solid arguments that it has in its favor, in terms of the potential to cut vehicle weight and reduce vehicle emissions.

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#1

Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/17/2014 1:06 PM

For economic reasons, lighter is better. As long as gasoline prices remain high, the demand for lighter cars will be the push. Aluminum will always be lighter than steel. Unless steel comes up with a composite to provide the rigidity required, the weight, and cost to compete, it will lose.

And then we have titanium to compete with aluminum. Stronger, corrosive proof, cheap, recyclable, and the best...lighter by 50%. Thus more efficient on the use of gas. Tesla has already started to use titanium in its undercarriages.

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#2
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Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/17/2014 2:41 PM

How much can you reduce the weight of a vehicle before it takes off and crashes, killing everyone ?.

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#3
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Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/17/2014 3:36 PM

"... Aluminum will always be lighter than steel...

...And then we have titanium to compete with aluminum. Stronger, corrosive proof, cheap, recyclable, and the best...lighter by 50%...''

.

It is difficult to guess what measure you reference when you use the term 'lighter'. Titanium is not less dense than aluminum. On the other hand, there are steel alloys with specific strength exceeding that of typical aluminum alloys by a good margin.

.

What is this 'lighter' you speak of?

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Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/18/2014 5:36 AM

To manufacture a component of equivalent strength the cross sectional area of titanum would be a lot less than aluminium. Lightness is achieved by using less material. While machining titanium is more expensive, casting costs are only slightly higher (higher temperatures so more energy usage and higher tooling cost). As casting techniques improve to the point where post cast machining is minimal, titanium will become increasingly attractive.

The automotive industry has in the past relied on a short life cycle for vehicles to sustain the size of it's market. Replacing steel with any non corrosive alternative will meet great resistance from the industry, especially the mass producers.

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#12
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Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/18/2014 6:21 PM

I didn't suggest that material properties of various materials couldn't be leveraged to minimize the weight of a component. I was taking issue with the spurious use of the term 'lighter' in the comment to which I replied.

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#15
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Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/22/2014 11:35 AM

just interested to know, what steel alloy has higher specific strength than al alloy?

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#17
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Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/22/2014 6:36 PM

Yield strength, or even ultimate strength, of most aluminum alloys is well below 100 ksi.

The density of steel is almost never more than three times the density of aluminum.

There are a number of martensitic steels with yield strength of 300 ksi or more. Aermet 300 by Carpenter is one example.

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#4

Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/17/2014 3:40 PM

Aluminum would seem to integrate well into themes of planned obsolescence. It is readily recyclable, yet much less amenable to repair.

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#5
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Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/17/2014 9:18 PM

You just have to massage those dents out, fast easy no paint necessary...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZUNTM47980

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#9
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Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/18/2014 11:02 AM

I'm thinking more along the lines of straightening a frame.

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#6
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Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/17/2014 11:09 PM

We repair aircraft all of the time.???

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#10
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Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/18/2014 11:07 AM

Something like a skin, right? Something structural doesn't just get bent back to shape and used again, does it?

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#16
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Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/22/2014 4:17 PM

The painted aluminum aircraft used a zinc chromate primer to get the paint to stick, what will be used on cars? I don't think zinc chromate can be considered "Green".

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#7

Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/18/2014 12:37 AM

The cost and machinability of titanium will keep it at bay for the most part as plastics continue to advance. Just my opinion.

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#11

Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/18/2014 11:21 AM

My findings over the last 10 years or so is that vehicles are just made of emissions systems wrapped in plastic that they added a few tires and seats too to make them sell better.

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#13

Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/19/2014 3:46 PM

Ford had produce relatively flat panels for certain models (hoods and trunk lids). This was a challenge for die design. With most of the die makers at that time, having a background in steel or "stihl" as it was pronounced in the German dialect.

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#14

Re: Can Steel Fend Off Aluminum's Assaults In the Battle for the Auto Industry?

10/20/2014 12:58 PM

And then there was the Saturn......

And then there wasn't......

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