Aluminum, Plastics Making Inroads in Auto Industry

When was the last time you closed the trunk of your car... (sounds of car doors or hoods slamming) ...then wondered, "What was that sound?" If your car door doesn't slam as it once did, chances are it's because there's more lightweight material used in its' construction than cars used to have. It resonates that way, because it's aluminum.

Industry forecasters say that material is going to increase from about 8% of the materials used in most current cars, to about 16% in 2025 - or roughly 550 pounds worth. Aluminum's advantage, according to ALCOA'S Randall Scheps, is the lack of weight.

SCHEPS: The aluminum will largely replace mild steel, which is quite a lot heavier, by about 40%, and it performs the same function, so it brings advantages to car making that automakers are starting to embrace in a big way.

The latest push in reducing vehicle weight is largely due to tightening federal gasoline mileage standards. The key word is CAFE, or Corporate Average Fuel Economy. Every auto maker needs its' entire fleet of light trucks and passenger cars to reflect 35 mpg averages by 2020, and potentially 53 mpg by 2025.

A recent survey found very few American auto executives think the materials needed to reduce a typical car from about 3,000 pounds, down to 2,500 pounds, are in use industry wide. And aluminum is the option they say would most help.

Scheps says lightweight cars are something Europeans have long accepted, partly because fuel has always been more expensive there.that's lead to innovation.

SCHEPS: They have embraced aluminum. The European market has really been the leader in groundbreaking new applications of aluminum. But what we see is by 2025, the North American market will catch up and will surpass the European market in terms of consumption of aluminum in cars.

Which actually bodes well for Cleveland and for Ohio.

The Harvard Avenue ALCOA plant is already the top producer for forged aluminum wheels, and creates aluminum automotive castings. Demand for both will increase; as car bodies go on diets, and heavier trucks become subject to the new fuel rules.

And Honda, with a plant in Marysville, is currently the top auto company consumer of aluminum. But all automakers realize that the lighter weight metal isn't the only new component on the car makers block.

KEITH CHRISTMAN: Auto companies are looking at all sorts of ways to lightweight their vehicles, and plastics are gonna play a big role.

Keith Christman is Managing Director of Plastics markets at the American Chemistry Council. Plastics were the automaker's second choice for shedding pounds.

Christman also produced impressive figures, as in every ten pounds of substituted plastic increasing fuel economy by 15%. But he says plastic component research is spawning much more.

CHRISTMAN: We've seen through some of the things that happen in auto racing and other applications, where plastics and composites can be used to enhance performance, and improve fuel efficiency and make it safer.
RICK: Stuff we see in Indycar/NASCAR - you experiment with plastics there, and then eventually I get to drive it?
CHRISTMAN: Absolutely - over time things learned in racing can be adopted and used more in production vehicles.

Both men say both materials are constantly being adapted, to allow cars to stay the same sizes, and do the same things - which weighing less, and using less fuel.

CHRISTMAN: We also have to look at what people need. Some families need larger cars. Plastic allows larger vehicles that still weigh less, through the use of lighter materials, and plastics and composites can really help do that.

It's not really a competition to replace steel, as each component could work in areas where the other cannot. Plastic, for example, can't stand the intense hear of the engine. But both men know it is a race to find ways to get their product, into a larger percentage of the production.

SCHEPS: The next great frontier for aluminum is really the entire car body. About 30% of car hoods are aluminum today, but the next great frontier for aluminum will be the body structure itself.

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