Steel is the dominant material for making cars today, and it is most often used for the outer shell of the car, along with many of the internal parts, such as brakes, chassis, exhaust and engine. As an automotive material, most of the competition for steel comes from aluminum, a more expensive material that is lightweight and rustproof. Currently, many automakers are seeking to combine steel with aluminum to create their vehicles. While members of the steel industry feel confident of their prospects of maintaining their dominance of the auto industry, researchers elsewhere are creating new methods of welding these materials together for cars of the future. The combination of tradition and innovation creates a new dynamic in the automotive industry for raw material suppliers, and capitalizing on these developments could prove to be a source of great opportunity for all concerned.
In a recent American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) internal interview, the president of the Steel Market Development Institute, Lawrence Kavanagh, states that while aluminum is certainly a factor in the automotive market, the new Novelis high-strength aluminum automotive grade is still only as strong as the steel made in the 1980s, and that “Automakers love to work with steel.” Kavanagh goes on to say that the truck and SUV market is looking to be targeted by alternative materials “because they not only represent half of the market, they are higher-cost vehicles that have higher profit margins and therefore could absorb the additional costs of using those materials.” He believes that steel can still compete in this area because of the industry’s efforts of meeting the updated weight requirements. Kavanagh says that automakers will eventually realize they can cut down their weight with steel alone (Source: AISI).
What if there was a way for steel and aluminum to be integrated together in a cost-effective process? Researchers at Ohio State University announced that they have developed a new way to weld different metals, reducing welding costs by 80 percent with 50 percent stronger bonds. These researchers note that welds are the key to process, as “materials have gotten stronger, but welds haven’t. We can design metals with intricate microstructures, but we destroy the microstructure when we weld” (Source: phys.org). To combat this, researchers developed the following method: they run a small current through the materials, while also forcing them together at such a speed that it rearranges the atomic structure of each material together. In such a manner, the OSU researchers have successfully been able to weld together steel and aluminum, something that has been difficult to achieve at the commercial level. In fact, according to the researchers the welded areas are actually stronger than the base materials alone. The team looks to begin collaborating with manufacturers to make this method the new standard in the automotive field.