Aluminum has emerged as a key weapon in the automotive industry’s pursuit of its sustainability. At the front end, we are seeing this take the form of the traditional reliance on steel ceding way to the increasing use of aluminum in both vehicle and body parts. At the back end, we are looking at automakers and aluminum manufacturers working collaboratively to promote environmentally-friendly, closed-loop recycling processes for end-of-life vehicles having significant aluminum content.
Aluminum becomes the Go-to Automotive Material
One doesn’t have to look hard to understand why aluminum is becoming the go-to material for many automakers. For a start, its light weighting attributes are a boon for automakers striving to reduce vehicle weight; it is estimated that the use of one kilogram of aluminum translates to an equivalent one kilogram reduction in the total weight of the vehicle. In short, it supports critical sustainability objectives of improved fuel efficiency and reduced carbon emissions.
Not surprisingly, therefore, we are seeing the growing use of aluminum content in everything from hoods and suspension parts to doors and engine radiators. Trends indicate that from current levels of about 150 kilograms, the average aluminum content in vehicles is set to surge almost one and a half times to 250 kilograms over the next five years.
In the US, the world’s second-largest car market after China, leading car manufacturer Ford has been one of the earliest votaries of aluminum use; its F-150, Super Duty, Expedition and Lincoln Navigator models now have all-aluminum bodies. In consonance with this strategic focus, Ford’s recent joint report with the University of Michigan and Light Metal Consultants, LLC, “The Coming Wave of Aluminum Sheet Scrap from Vehicle Recycling in the United States” highlights that if these four vehicle models continue to maintain production volumes at present levels, then aluminum auto body sheet (ABS) scrap generated by them could double from current volumes to almost 246 kt annually by 2050.
It is important to note that aluminum is not only advantageous for internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, it also has a key role to play in the development of electric vehicles (EVs), primarily due to its light weighting capabilities. This attribute reduces the overall weight of the vehicle, thereby improving fuel efficiency and enabling increased range. For instance, research indicates that an approximately 100 kg reduction in the weight of an EV can translate to a 10% or higher increase in range, thereby assuaging consumer concerns over range anxiety which, so far, has been a major restraint to the adoption of EVs. In addition to the range, aluminum is also seen as being the bedrock for improved EV performance, strength, and safety. While light-weighting capabilities are undoubtedly the primary draw, aluminum’s affordability and easy accessibility represent additional bonuses.
For the EV ecosystem, aluminum offers other potential uses. It is being evaluated for deployment in charging infrastructure, while novel, high-energy aluminum-air batteries are being touted as being superior to conventional lithium-ion batteries.
Closed-loop Processes Promote Environmental and Economic Benefits
The World Economic Forum estimates that closed-loop recycling – a process by which a product is used, recycled, made into a new product again such that it does not enter landfill – can reduce energy consumption by up to 75%. Such processes offer multiple benefits: reduced pressure on natural resources, decreased pollution, and less need for landfill space. The manufacturing process is designed with recycling in mind that leads to sustainability across the supply chain. Aluminum, which does not lose its quality during recycling, is particularly suited for environmentally-friendly closed-loop processes.
Therefore, as aluminum-intensive vehicles reach their end of life over the next ten years, what implications will it have for the automotive industry in terms of minimizing its carbon footprint? In this context, one of the major findings of the report is that by 2035, a recycled volume of 125 kt of aluminum scrap will be associated with a massive savings of 950,000 tons in carbon emissions.
One of the inherent advantages of aluminum is that it can be repeatedly used and recycled. More specifically for the automotive industry, an overwhelming – almost 95% – of aluminum content in end-of-life vehicles has the potential to be recovered and recycled. An additional benefit is that the energy and emissions linked with producing recycled aluminum are considerably lower than the carbon-heavy processes associated with primary aluminum production.
Among the automotive manufacturers that have taken the lead are Toyota, Jaguar, Volvo, and Ford. Volvo aims to become a circular business by 2040. As part of this agenda, it is focused on adopting closed-loop recycling for aluminum. Ford is embracing closed-loop initiatives in extracting and using aluminum scraps in the manufacture of its F-150 trucks.
In essence, the closed-loop recycling production strategies—where aluminum content can be reclaimed from end-of-life vehicles and reused in new vehicles—offer the automotive industry the opportunity to embrace environment-friendly reclaim and recycle practices, improve energy efficiency, reduce their carbon footprint, and ensure greater sustainability. Such strategies will also serve to promote economic benefits since aluminum parts recovery and reuse will improve overall production costs. Therefore, we are confident about aluminum spearheading the automotive industry’s entry into an era of environmentally and economically sound sustainability.