Geared for growth

Features - Automotive Aluminum

Aluminum’s share of the automotive market continues to grow.

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Photo courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover

With a new administration in Washington, and pressure for big corporations to deepen their commitment to environmental stewardship, clean energy has catapulted back into the nation’s collective consciousness.

President Biden’s goal is clear: position America as a global leader in electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing. Not only does the president have plans to replace the government’s fleet with EVs, but initiatives are underway to create a legislative environment that would accelerate the manufacture and sale of these vehicles.

The Biden administration’s clean energy priorities also are reflected in efforts to improve U.S. infrastructure through investments to strengthen the nation’s electric grid. Aluminum should benefit from these developments, too.

Accelerated growth

E-mobility is accelerating full throttle. According to McKinsey & Co., headquartered in New York City, “more than 50 million EVs could be sharing roads in the next five years. More than 250 new models of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) will be introduced in the next two years alone, and as many as 130 million EVs could be sharing roads the world over by 2030.”

The national charging network continues to expand, and battery development is advancing at a record pace, reducing charge times and decreasing range anxiety among drivers. However, consumers want more than sustainable driving options. They still demand style, performance, safety, technology and value.

According to 2020 market intelligence from DuckerFrontier, automotive aluminum content is estimated to reach 514 pounds per vehicle (PPV) by 2026 and 570 PPV by 2030, up from 459 PPV in 2020.

Vehicle mass reduction, or taking weight out of the vehicle, is a fundamental strategy to reduce its carbon emissions while enabling the features that consumers demand.

When lightweight advanced aluminum alloys replace steel, vehicles’ sizes can be maintained or even increased, while their mass is significantly reduced. The less a car or truck weighs, the less fuel or battery power is needed to move it, lowering emissions overall. For automakers, aluminum’s value as a sustainable material solution and key enabler for lighter, more efficient and lower carbon-emitting cars and trucks has been long understood.

Today, automakers, including Tesla, Ford, Jaguar Land Rover and Audi, are choosing high-strength, low-weight aluminum for doors, hoods, trunk lids, body-in-white, crash management systems and battery enclosures to help offset battery weight and increase range.

Notably, aluminum is the fastest growing automotive material and, as EVs rise in popularity, automotive aluminum once again is emerging as a leading choice. According to 2020 market intelligence from DuckerFrontier, automotive aluminum content is estimated to reach 514 pounds per vehicle (PPV) by 2026 and 570 PPV by 2030, up from 459 PPV in 2020. This 24 percent increase will be in large part because of the ramp-up of electrified powertrains and BEV platforms.

Around the bend

The onslaught of widespread aluminum-intensive EVs is just around the bend as new vehicles enter the market, signaling opportunity for recyclers. However, a more immediate opportunity will be a wave of auto body sheet (ABS) scrap available for recycling as the first mass-produced aluminum-intensive vehicles begin to reach end of life, according to Michigan-based researchers.

In a 2020 paper published in Resources, Conservation & Recycling Journal (RCR), experts from the University of Michigan, Ford and Light Metal Consultants LLC used a dynamic flow analysis to estimate aluminum ABS scrap generated from today’s highest selling vehicles in America. They found that if production continues at current volumes, “aluminum ABS scrap from these vehicles will increase to approximately 125,000 tons per year in 2035 and 246,000 tons per year in 2050. The majority of this scrap will be available for U.S. processing with [approximately] 10 percent of deregistered vehicles exported or achieving vintage status.”

Aluminum ABS scrap not only allows recyclers to enter higher value markets but also presents an opportunity for automakers to close the loop and use greater amounts of recycled aluminum to make future vehicles. Initial metal production is an energy-intensive industry, and operating a primary aluminum smelter or casthouse requires a significant amount of reliable electricity. Secondary aluminum saves 92 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with primary aluminum production and requires only 8 percent of the energy.

To reduce the nation’s energy consumption, aluminum producers voluntarily worked to lessen the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions from North American primary production by nearly half since 1991. Primary aluminum producers did so through improved process efficiency and by increasing their use of hydroelectric power. 

They also ramped up efforts in partnership with automakers to implement closed-loop recycling systems, which allow automakers to tap an endlessly renewable supply of aluminum. This circular system improves the sustainability of manufacturing operations and products and also provides supply chain security. 

Photo courtesy of Nissan

Going full circle

Notably, the aluminum used in automotive applications already contains a great amount of recycled content. Aluminum castings, such as those used for transmission housings, are made largely from recycled material. In addition, aluminum in end-of-life vehicles has been well-recycled, and mostly reused, again and again, to make new vehicle parts. 

A 2016 report from Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Resource Recovery and Recycling in Massachusetts confirms that 95 percent of the aluminum used in a vehicle is recycled at the end of life. Researchers used a “grave-to-gate” material-flow-analysis approach to determine exactly how aluminum is separated and recovered at the end of a vehicle’s service life. Researchers distributed process-specific surveys to investigate the percentage of aluminum recovered and material flow proportions into and out of each respective operation.

The study assumes that dismantling is preceded by extracting and distributing the most valuable and reusable parts to the appropriate consumers. Once dismantled, the end-of-life vehicle is flattened into a hulk and delivered to an auto shredder where, dependent upon market value, it could be mixed with scrap metal from other industrial sectors, including consumer durables and construction.

Finally, downstream separation systems use dry and/or wet automated sorting technologies to upgrade scrap. Automotive shredded scrap can be sorted based on color, weight, magnetic property, electrical conductivity, density and chemical composition.

Downstream separation systems incorporate the appropriate technologies to target the metallic constituents that fit their process-specific business models. Following downstream separation, the recovery process for automotive aluminum is completed. Secondary aluminum recycling facilities convert recovered aluminum-containing scrap, old or new, into a fully recycled, reusable product, after pretreating to remove contamination and impurities.

In this together

Several automakers are leaders in the circular economy. Ford, working with Novelis and Arconic, producers of flat-rolled aluminum, developed the world’s largest closed-loop recycling system for its lineup of aluminum-intensive, light-duty pickup trucks. As a result, Ford recycles and reuses more than 90 percent of this scrap—enough to produce 37,000 F-150 bodies each month.

Similarly, Jaguar Land Rover’s Reality aluminum project has the potential to reduce production emissions by up to 26 percent compared with the current automotive grade. Since the launch of Reality in 2008, the automaker already has reduced its global vehicle manufacturing operating CO2 emissions by nearly 50 percent per vehicle through its closed-loop recycling efforts.

Audi also launched a closed-loop program recently to ensure that high-grade aluminum scrap is fed back into the material loop. In 2018, the company saved 90,000 tons of CO2.

Nissan Motor Corp. announced that the 2021 Rogue will be the company’s first vehicle manufactured using a closed-loop recycling system for aluminum parts, created through partnerships with several aluminum producers. The new effort supports the company’s Nissan Green Program 2022, which aims to replace 30 percent of the raw materials used in cars built in 2022 with materials that do not rely on newly mined resources. 

Finally, the same University of Michigan and Ford research team that published the 2020 RCR paper is partnering with multiple stakeholders to conduct additional research to ensure aluminum automotive sheet scrap from end-of-life vehicles goes back to make new automotive sheet for future vehicles.

These efforts will help to close the material loop for generations to come. The REMADE Institute, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, recently awarded this research proposal a grant to fund the project.

An incredible revolution is underway, with EVs dominating conversation in the automotive industry. At nearly 30 percent, the transportation sector generates the largest share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Sharp engineering is required to take on the job of tackling climate change through more efficient cars and trucks.

The aluminum industry is a leading partner in addressing decarbonization as more sustainable vehicles enter the market. Aluminum is one of the planet’s most abundant elements. It is a sustainable metal for automotive and a vital material for the 21st century and beyond.

(Marshall) Jinlong Wang is the senior environmental/sustainability specialist at the Aluminum Association, Arlington, Virginia. He holds a master’s degree in environmental management from Yale University. More information on aluminum’s life cycle assessment in automotive applications is available from http://drivealuminum.org/aluminumnogreenermetal.