Use of Alternative Materials in Automobiles: Aluminum and Magnesium
With fuel economy targets on the rise, and drivers looking for better performance from their vehicles, auto manufacturers are looking for ways to make their vehicles lighter so they can perform better. However, this can be costly depending on the materials used, not to mention difficult to implement. But auto manufacturers have also kept up with the times and through the decades have developed better vehicles than their predecessors. In fact, today, auto manufacturers are looking into to unlikely materials when designing a vehicle: aluminum and magnesium.
High-strength steels are still widely used in the industry, but the cost and weight of the material has started to cause problems when hitting targets such as handling and fuel economy. That’s why aluminum has been making leaps in car design and manufacturing, and soon, magnesium might too. At the moment, magnesium is about 75% more costly than steel, and producing it isn’t very green.
Most magnesium comes from China, from a largely coal-fired industry – not good for the atmosphere. A chunk of magnesium in the U.S. comes from Utah, but it’s acquired by extracting brine from the Great Salt Lake. To battle this, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) actually shelled out $32 million in grants to aid research into lightweight vehicle materials, including magnesium and aluminum. By 2020, automakers want to use a little more than 350 lbs of magnesium in vehicles and reduce the overall vehicle weight by 20 percent.
But why? Well, many automakers have already begun to use aluminum in place of steel, and it’s proven to be a better alternative in many ways. If magnesium can be collected and produced with cheaper, less environmentally harmful means, then that means two things: cheaper costs and cheaper, better vehicles. Win-win. Here’s a quick run-down of how aluminum has already helped the auto industry:
This one is a given. The less a car weighs, the better it will drive, and with increased handling and drivability. Not to mention a lighter vehicle takes the stress off of an engine, which leads to more mileage and better fuel economy.
Strength and Safety
Aluminum may seem fragile when looking at a crushed soda can, but thick sheets of forged aluminum (the same used on planes and race cars) absorb energy much better than steel. So now a car can not only weigh less, but it can also be better at protecting passengers in the event of a collision.
A single ton of recycled aluminum can have the same energy expenditure of roughly 20 barrels of oil. Moreover, vehicles that weigh less also consume less energy to run. That means less CO2 emissions, a target many automakers have been struggling with since the 70’s.
This has been going on for awhile. Nearly every Dodge vehicle comes with aluminum wheels, Jeep has been pushing for a higher percent of aluminum in their vehicles, and Chevy has been using aluminum to increase the performance of their already high-end performance cars. In the end, aluminum costs less, doesn’t further damage the Earth, and can be used to design safer cars. So let’s see what happens in a couple years.