In many ways the world is in a new "iron age," with global sheet steel consumption up nearly 70 percent over the past decade. Steel is a logical material choice, given its low cost relative to alternative materials combined with its good strength-to-weight ratio. So it is no wonder that steel continues to be the material of choice for many manufacturing industries, especially for automotive production. In fact, the average light vehicle today weighing approximately 4,000 pounds contains nearly 2,600 pounds of steel, representing 62 percent of the mass.
As a material, steel is, at times, both simple and complex. For automotive applications, metallurgical science has continued to advance in the development of new chemistries and microstructures that create the properties needed to meet changing customer needs, something that has been happening since hand-formed steel sheet began to supplant wooden car bodies a century ago.
For example, when the automotive industry needed to address the issues of corrosion and vehicle durability in the 1970s and 1980s, new coated steel products were developed that greatly increased the life expectancy of light vehicles. This required transforming galvanized steels into a highly formable steel product with excellent surface quality—the products that we take for granted today.
With the automotive industry now facing the challenges of both skyrocketing oil prices and the need to address climate change, the steel industry is hard at work again in service to its customers. A recent study by Ducker Worldwide shows that high-strength steels now average 415 pounds per vehicle, an increase of nearly 45 percent in the past 10 years. This demonstrates that steel has successfully held its leading market share, emerging from the materials skirmishes of the past decades, and is growing at a rate that far exceeds that of other materials.
There are several reasons for this success, the most prominent of which is the bringing together of an international coalition of steel companies that developed the UltraLight Steel Auto Body (ULSAB). ULSAB was a body-in-white that achieved a 25-percent reduction in vehicle mass, establishing steel as a viable lightweighting material for the automotive market. ULSAB was followed by ULSAB-AVC (Advanced Vehicle Concepts), which introduced the new advanced high-strength steels into the mass reduction equation.
Advanced high-strength steels have redefined modern vehicle structures, giving them improved fuel efficiency, enhanced safety features and high-volume production at affordable cost. Today, high-strength steel is the fastest-growing material in providing lighter weight for automotive applications, and member companies of the American Iron and Steel Institute are working today with General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC through the Auto/Steel Partnership on a number of projects with these new materials.
At the same time, steel has become a green material, signifying its environmental leadership. The North American steel industry has many of the cleanest steel producers in the world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, for example, iron and steel production accounts for about 1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1990 and 2006, the U.S. steel industry reduced its energy intensity by nearly 30 percent. There is a direct correlation between the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to that downward trend in energy consumption, which has put the American steel sector well ahead of the Kyoto greenhouse gas emission goals.
The marked reduction in greenhouse gas emissions reflects the interplay of a number of factors. Because they are all privately owned and market-driven, North American steel producers have a financial incentive to constantly increase efficiency and decrease energy use through investment and process improvements. This has been achieved in an environment where electricity and natural gas prices are among the highest in the world, and in some instances are twice as high as other countries with which domestic steel companies compete.
A major source of the per-ton emissions reductions has been the increased use of recycled steel, principally in electric-arc furnaces but in integrated facilities as well. Between 1996 and 2005, the electric furnace share of steel production rose to 55 percent from about 43 percent in the United States. At the same time, the integrated producers have increased their use of scrap as well. The use of scrap was not the sole source of improvement, however; both integrated and electric furnace producers have increased their efficiency and reduced energy intensity through a multitude of process improvements.
Since 1975, the North American steel industry has invested more than $60 billion in new technologies to improve energy efficiency and productivity. In a typical year, more than 15 percent of the steel industry's capital expenditures are directed toward environmental improvement projects. In the past 25 years, annual energy consumption by the steel industry has been reduced by more than 60 percent.
Because of this focus on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, recycling is an essential part of the steel business. As a result, more steel is recycled each year than all other materials combined, including aluminum, glass and paper. In 2006, nearly 15 million tons of steel were recycled from automobiles. Since more steel was recovered from scrapped vehicles than was used in the production of new cars, the recycling rate for automobiles exceeded 100 percent.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycled iron and steel saves the nation 74 percent of the energy that would have been needed to make new steel. That energy would be enough to electrically power about 18 million homes for a full year.
The steel industry is working to develop new, advanced steel products and applications, such as the advanced high-strength steels, that will yield even greater energy benefits. For example, it is investing millions of dollars in the CO2 Breakthrough Program, research aimed at developing future steelmaking processes that will emit little or no carbon dioxide. The industry is committed to this approach because it is not only good business, it also is responsible stewardship.
James L. Wainscott is chairman, president and chief executive officer of AK Steel Corp., West Chester, Ohio.
Metals Forum appears monthly and is open to submissions from industry and trade associations wishing to address issues of concern to the metals community.