Is the automotive industry about to give up on advanced materials?

The automotive industry is on the cusp of some drastic changes. According to a recent report by analyst IHS Markit, changes in personal transportation over the next 20 years will be more profound than anything experienced over the past century. The signs are clear as electric vehicle (EV) production increases, ‘mobility-as-a-service’ – such as ride-hailing app Uber – continue to disrupt and autonomous vehicles (AVs) begin to emerge.

But, what do these changes mean for the materials used in the manufacture of vehicles? With future vehicles being electric and autonomous, do manufacturers still need to lightweight? And what new opportunities will there be for materials suppliers?

The automotive industry has been pursuing a lightweight agenda for well over a decade now, and has taken many risks when it comes to metal replacement. In some cases, this has resulted in part failures and reliability problems. In other cases, processes problems have created bottlenecks or quality control issues. Advanced materials, especially composites, are difficult to get right and easy to get very wrong.

Despite billions spent, the average weight of a like-for-like car model today, as compared to 10 years ago, is about the same. Many automotive engineers are scratching their heads, and wondering if it is money well spent.

ArcelorMittal’s chief marketing officer for global automotive, Brad Davey, says: “AVs will still need to be lightweight, cost-effective, and recyclable. Steel is the only material that can fulfil these requirements.”

Many in the industry agree. The lightweighting agenda is still going strong, no doubt about that. But industry’s obsession for plastics and composites does show signs of waning. While materials suppliers of all types continue to trumpet their material as the solution, many are turning back to the old faithful that is steel.

UK based Tata Steel claims that increasing demand for ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEV), such as EVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), will drive growth in steel supply to the European automotive industry by 4.2Mt. According to a study carried out by the company, demand for advanced steels for the structures of these vehicles alone will increase by approximately 2.6Mt by 2050, as manufacturers look to save weight in cost-effective ways.

The study says that another key growth area for steel will be in the powertrains used in ULEVs, including electric motors and battery cells. Expected to account for a 1.6Mt increase in the demand for steel, these components will use greater levels of electrical and plated steels, respectively. High performance electrical steels can improve an electric motor’s efficiency, enhancing range and power, while lithium-ion batteries commonly used in ULEVs require advanced plated steel.

Tata predicts that aluminium and carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) will have a relatively low impact in these vehicles for two reasons: firstly, they will remain prohibitively expensive; secondly, they are less sustainable when looking at the full lifecycle, which will be a future driver in automotive. Steel, it points out, is infinitely recyclable with no loss of quality.

Automotive marketing manager at Tata Steel, Chris Wooffindin, explains: “In terms of environmental sustainability, we see our customers moving from tailpipe assessment towards lifecycle assessment, the true assessment of a vehicles’ environmental credentials, from cradle to grave.”

Of course, suppliers of aluminium and composites would disagree strongly with this stance, and – it would appear – with some justification.

Aluminium extrusions have already been proven in supporting EV battery packs – the Tesla Model S features an aluminium box for just this purpose. Extrusions can also be designed with heat sinks in order to mitigate the large amounts of heat that can be generated by the batteries.

Aluminium suppliers are already working to meet the needs of carmakers developing EVs. For example, Novelis signed an agreement with NIO to provide aluminium sheet products for the automaker’s fleet of premium electric and autonomous vehicles and Hydro Extruded Solutions is reopening its extrusion factory in the UK to supply the growing demand from the automotive industry, including London Electrical Vehicle Co’s electric black cab.

Composites producers are also eying the EV market. Indeed, one of the most prominent PHEVs, BMW’s i3, famously features a mass-produced CFRP monocoque.

Future AVs will almost certainly be battery powered, but their design is likely to be drastically different from conventional vehicles – offices or living rooms on wheels that cannot crash.

Sales and marketing manager for industrial markets in Europe at Hexcel Corp, Claude Despierres, thinks the clean slate approach likely to be applied to the design of AVs will be beneficial to the composites industry. She says: “The designs [of AVs] are all new, so there is the opportunity for car manufacturers who are ready to move away from the current practice of integrating composite parts into a ‘black metal’ design – where they don’t make optimum use of the benefits composites can bring to a design – to a truly ‘designed in composites’ solution that makes full benefit from the materials. This provides opportunities, for example, for fewer component parts, different shapes, which steel cannot provide because of its brittleness, and an optimised design using the anisotropy of composite materials.”

James Bakewell

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