In recent years, automotive engineers have been scrambling to use a lightweight material that’s beenvital to the aerospace industry for decades: Aluminum. It offers numerous advantages, such as corrosion resistance, plus an excellent blend of strength and low mass over steel and other traditional materials. That’s important, because the average vehicle is now 50 percent heavier than 45 years ago, due to all sorts of onboard amenities that consumers keep demanding.
I have been following the auto industry’s aluminum fetish for quite some time while writing articles focusing on topics such as lightweight body panels and wiring harnesses. However, as I’ve pointed out before, aluminum has pros and cons that engineers must carefully consider.
Carbon-fiber composites offer lighter weight, better corrosion resistance and higher impact strength than aluminum. These hybrid materials also provide engineers with greater design flexibility and allow them to significantly reduce the number of parts in assemblies.
And, don’t forget about good old steel, which is a proven material that’s easier to form and join than some of the new kids on the block. Ultra-high-strength steel is more expensive than traditional mild steel, but it can reduce vehicle weight by at least 10 percent, because parts can be made thinner.
But, it’s hard to ignore the fact that aluminum will play a growing role in the automotive industry in the years ahead. In fact, aluminum use in vehicles is projected to double by 2025, as automakers continue to roll out a wide variety of lighter weight models. According to some experts, Ford’s next-generation F-150 pickup is just the tip of the iceberg.
I recently came across an interesting new book entitled Aluminum Dreams (MIT Press), which provides insight into the history and development of aluminum. For instance, did you know that science fiction writer Jules Verne was one of the first people to recognize aluminum’s potential way back in the 1860s?
The book explains how aluminum “changed mobility and mobilized modern life” through a wide variety of innovative applications. Aside from transportation, the lightweight material transformed architecture, cooking utensils, food packaging, furniture, kitchen appliances and many other objects.
During the 1930s, “designers wrapped everything in the aura of aluminum’s silvery gleam and sleek curves,” says author Mimi Sheller, a professor at Drexel University. However, she also delves into aluminum’s darker side. The “speed metal of a new and faster age” has a long, interesting history when it comes to defense applications that go beyond aircraft.