Lightweighting vehicles to improve fuel economy remains the
driving force in the design and application of metals and other
materials in the automotive industry. But the environmental
burden imposed through the entire lifecycle of
materialsfrom manufacturing to use and recoveryis a
growing concern for industry as governments across the globe
impose stricter regulations to better control and reduce
greenhouse gas emissions.
The lightweighting trend itself is unstoppable, especially
as small vehicles are desired in many regions of the world,
fast-growing emerging economies are creating a middle class
that wants to own vehicles, and materials must now be fashioned
to handle new fuel sources, such as plug-in batteries.
The steel, aluminum and copper industries all say that the
content of each of these metals entering service in a brand-new
vehicle typically has already been recycled, thus creating very
little emissions in the manufacturing process; is made to last
the life of the vehicle without needing replacement; and is
virtually 100-percent recyclable when the vehicle is
Copper content in North American vehicles ranges from 55 to
68 pounds, according to a market study conducted by the Copper
Development Association (CDA), New York. Forecasting that
hybrid electric/gasoline-powered vehicles will make up 4 to 6
percent of all vehicles on North American roads within two
years, the study estimated that hybrids "will use almost twice
as much copper as traditional 14-volt (battery) vehicles,"
according to Bob Weed, vice president of the CDA's original
equipment manufacturing section.
Apart from the needs created by a battery-operated vehicle,
the increasing amount of standard electronicsfrom global
positioning satellite (GPS) devices and video screens to iPhone
docking stationsall require more wiring.
"Our studies show that the copper content of vehicles is
increasing, primarily due to the increase of electrical and
electronic components. (That) includes the connectors and
terminal components as well as wiring," Weed said.
Aluminum's strength in the lifecycle of automotive materials
comes in the use phase, according to Doug Richman, vice
president of engineering and technology at Kaiser Aluminum
Corp., Foothill Ranch, Calif.
Aluminum production "uses more energy and generates up to
three times more CO2 (carbon dioxide) than to create virgin
steel, but in the use phase that deficit is now offset," he
acknowledged. "In 18 months, the vehicle is breakeven in terms
of greenhouse gas savings, and from then on there is a net
savings for the rest of the vehicle's life up to 14
years"the average age of a vehicle when it is
Although they perform well in the use phase because they are
so light, materials such as magnesium, plastics and composites
like carbon fiber perform less well in lifecycle comparisons,
Richman said. With magnesium, according to researchers at
General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, one "must drive
80,000 miles before breaking even on CO2 emissions and energy
usage," Richman said.
Magnesium recycling rates grew to 53 percent of apparent
supply in 2008 from 40 percent in 2004, according to the latest
data available from the U.S. Geological Survey.
Approximately 95 percent of all aluminum in a scrapped
vehicle is recycled and about 60 percent of the aluminum that
goes into making a new car is secondary material, Richman said,
noting that melting secondary aluminum uses only 5 percent of
the energy needed when smelting new aluminum.
"Right now, folks are paying more attention to the
sustainability of vehicle content," said Ron Krupitzer, vice
president of automotive applications at the Steel Market
Development Institute (SMDI), a division of the American Iron
and Steel Institute.
Metal manufacturers and converters have become more focused
on sustainability primarily for sound economic reasonsthe
more metal recovered, the less raw material has to be mined and
meltedbut also for the sake of environmental stewardship.
"The EPA is interested in our carbon footprint," he said.
Steel accounts for 60 to 65 percent of the average North
American vehicle's content today, up from about 55 percent 15
years ago, which Krupitzer attributes to the wider application
of high-strength lightweight steels. There continues to be even
more pressure, he said, "on mass reduction and continued work
on strengthening methods and lightweighting."
Krupitzer firmly believes that lighter but highly engineered
vehicles are the future and that lightweight high-strength
steels will take an even greater share of vehicle content.
"Our basic thinking on lifecycle is simple In making a car,
if we reduce the amount of steel by using high-strength steel
we reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions in making the
steel, and the car uses less gasoline, so we're creating lower
emissions there," he said. "At the end of the vehicle's life,
every pound of steel is recovered and reused. The average
recycling ratepounds retrieved through scrapping and
dismantling and remelting of materialis 100 percent,
equal to the new steel going into vehicles every year."
The economics of the recycling business "determine the way
end-of-life vehicles are processed in the United States," Weed
said. Automakers are working on cost-effective solutions that
will improve the recycling rates for junked cars and trucks.
"Dismantlers are removing those components for which commodity
prices make separate processing economical. Similarly,
shredding companies choose their technologies to maximize the
amount of copper recycled, which also has a positive effect on
their revenues," he said.
"The engine that drives recycling in the automotive market
is steel," Krupitzer said. "If there weren't a market to
retrieve steel, the other metals couldn't be recovered