The use of aluminum in automotive
applications has been climbing steadily for the past 30 years,
according to a study by Ducker Worldwide LLC, Troy, Mich.,
commissioned by the Aluminum Association's Auto and Light Truck
The average aluminum content in North
American light vehicles was 319 pounds in 2006, up 3.9 percent
from 307 pounds in 2005 and nearly four times the 81-pound
average in 1973. Aluminum last year surpassed iron as the
second most commonly used material in autos, trailing only
steel, ALTG said.
"Aluminum has done a great job of penetrating
the auto industry over the last 30 years," said Subodh K. Das,
director of the Center for Aluminum Technology at the
University of Kentucky and president and chief executive
officer of Secat Inc., Lexington, Ky., the organization that
commercializes the center's research.
Aluminum's use in autos is expected to
continue on a growth trend, Mike Bull, head of ALTG's technical
committee, said. "Certainly, the trend is heading in that
direction. We see steady and improved growth for aluminum in
the automotive sector."
Recent projections suggest that global auto
production will soon reach 100 million units annually, Das
said. Even with a conservative average of 300 pounds of
aluminum per vehicle, that equals about 15 million tonnes of
aluminum in automotive applications annually, representing
nearly 40 percent of the world's current
38-million-tonne-a-year aluminum market.
Economic, environmental and consumer factors,
such as the price of fuel, will continue to drive aluminum use
in autos, Bull said. This will come in terms of both
aluminum-intensive vehicles, defined as those with more than
500 pounds of aluminum content, and large-volume models that
use less aluminum per vehicle but by virtue of their production
run size will have a significant impact on aluminum
The growth in auto aluminum use will come on
three major axis, Bull said. He pointed to aluminum's
displacement of other metals in individual components, such as
hoods, trunks and suspension components. "There is a growing
level of comfort among original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)
in choosing aluminum components like control arms," he said.
"We see incremental continued adoption of suspension
Growth also will come from the "high content"
vehicles containing more than 500 pounds of aluminum. "There
will always be some fairly aluminum-intensive vehicles in the
market," Bull said. And growth will come from vehicles with
full aluminum structures, such as the Jaguar XJ and the Audi
There is also a move to use more aluminum in
sport utility vehicles (SUVs), Bull said. Manufacturers are
using aluminum in the roofs of SUVs to lower the center of
gravity in the vehicle, as well as in the rear liftgate in an
attempt to reduce the rear-axle mass load.
Another avenue for aluminum growth comes from
secondary weight savings, he said. If an automaker can reduce
the mass of a vehicle using aluminum, the manufacturer can then
achieve a similar performance with a smaller engine because the
engine will have less mass to move, and similar weight and cost
savings also can be realized elsewhere in the drivetrain as
overall vehicle weight is lowered. "Aluminum gets the weight
spiral going down with secondary weight savings," Bull
One area where secondary weight savings could
play an even greater role is in vehicles with alternative fuel
and energy technology engines like hybrids and others. These
engines are usually more expensive to manufacture, Bull said,
and the cost grows in step with additional horsepower.
Lightweighting such a vehicle with aluminum components reduces
the need to add more power to achieve performance targets,
leading to an equation in which it might be less costly to
lightweight the vehicle than add power to the engine. "We're
quite keen to see how this plays out," he added.
Although much of the growth in aluminum use
in autos will come from body and structural applications, there
is still room for growth in castings, such as engine blocks-an
area targeted for expansion by Tenedora Nemak SA de CV, San
Pedro Garza García, Mexico, a subsidiary of Mexican
conglomerate Alfa SA de CV.
Nemak might even be a potential buyer of the
automotive castings business of Alcoa Inc., Pittsburgh, one
analyst said. The aluminum producer expects to sell the
business by the end of this year. "There aren't a lot of large
foundry companies any more, and Nemak is quite good at what
they do," the analyst said. "They are a potential buyer of
Alcoa's castings business. The potential for growth for
aluminum is still high under the hood in castings and
structurals, which are the types of things the Alcoa business
makes. It would be a good opportunity for Nemak."