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METALS: Advancing Light Metals for American Automobiles

March 24, 2014

Since the early 20th century, steel has been the prevailing material of choice for fabricating automobile parts and bodies. Versatile, durable, and relatively inexpensive, steel has enabled the manufacture of safe and reliable vehicles. Unfortunately steel is heavy compared to other metals. Heavier vehicles require more fuel in order to accelerate and maintain their speed, requiring consumers to frequently refuel their cars and trucks. Consequently, a combination of high fuel prices and more stringent U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards has caused automakers to consider alternative light metal alloys to improve fuel-efficiency without compromising vehicle safety and integrity.

One such metal is aluminum (alloyed with magnesium)–ideal for use in vehicles because of its reduced weight, substantial strength, and resistance to corrosion. U.S. automakers have already entered a transition period toward greater adoption of aluminum in vehicle construction. For instance, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that GM is stepping up its efforts to have a large aluminum-bodied pickup truck on the market by late 2018. Ford already uses aluminum in its 2015 Model F-150 pickup truck, which reduces the vehicle’s curb weight by up to 700 pounds, a marked improvement over traditional steel construction. The Tesla Motors Model S electric car also employs an aluminum body to help achieve an impressive range of up to 300 miles per charge.

Growing demand for lightweight vehicle materials, however, has brought to light many of the inherent challenges in increased aluminum manufacturing. Despite its clear advantages as a lightweight material, primary production of aluminum from bauxite ore is an expensive and energy-intensive process that produces considerable CO2 emissions and other potentially harmful waste materials. In fact, the aluminum industry uses about 300 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, which accounts for approximately 3% of global electricity consumption. Thus, to fully realize the benefits of light metals such as aluminum, the processes by which these materials are refined and processed must improve considerably. As more carmakers move to adopt aluminum in their vehicles, the industry will need to develop innovative approaches to processing and recycling to ensure an abundant supply of low-cost light metals. Enter ARPA-E and METALS.

The Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) seeks to address these various challenges with its METALS program, which announced funding for 18 projects in September 2013. METALS, which stands for “Modern Electro/Thermochemical Advances in Light Metals Systems,” is comprised of projects at a variety of organizations exploring cost-effective and energy-efficient manufacturing techniques to process metals such as aluminum, titanium, and magnesium for use in vehicles. Some METALS projects are also examining the sorting and recycling of light metals using automated processes to ensure minimal loss of scrap materials. Recycling aluminum uses only about 5% of the energy required to initially produce aluminum, an immense savings over primary production of aluminum from bauxite.

By reducing the cost of light metals and increasing supply, the METALS program is an opportunity for the United States to pave the way for the widespread adoption of light metals in vehicles. If successful, these innovations will help to ensure that the U.S. produces the most competitive vehicles worldwide based on improved efficiency, lower cost, and reduced emissions.

As of 2018:

  • For a detailed assessment of several METALS project teams, please click here.