• Jan 31st 2011 at 4:30PM
  • 39
Making Stronger Steel As Light As Aluminum

The world's largest steel maker, ArcelorMital, says it has come up with a new kind of steel that the world has never seen before. Thanks to nanotechnology, the company says automakers can now match the weight of aluminum cars, but do it in steel at far lower cost.

It can take 188 pounds out of the body-in-white of a car... but total weight savings could be even bigger.
Specifically, ArcelorMital says it can take 188 pounds out of the body-in-white of a car. The body-in-white, or BIW, refers to the basic structure of a car, including the doors, hood and deck lid. That's a big number. By taking so much weight out of the structure, other components such as the powertrain, drivetrain, brakes, etc. can be downsized as well. In other words, the total weight savings could be even bigger.

ArcelorMital is already showing this new kind of steel to automakers. It isn't yet ready to publicly divulge any of the technical aspects of the steel or how it's using nanotechnology to make it. The company says we're still two to three years away before we get those kinds of details. And that's about the time we'll see this steel show up in production. No word yet on which car company may be the first to use it, but the rumor on the street is that Ford is all over this technology.

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John McElroyJohn McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as a Detroit insider to Autoblog readers.

The nano steel itself is not inherently lighter, but it's so strong that automakers can use thinner gauges and that's where part of the weight savings comes from. Another part of the weight savings comes from not having to use additional brackets, gussets or panels to strengthen the structure.

For example, A-pillars are becoming so big these days due to roof crush standards that they are actually becoming a safety hazard. The fat A-pillars can partially block your view to side traffic or pedestrians. But with this nano steel, A-pillars could be made much thinner with no sacrifice to structure or safety.

The nano steel does require a newer manufacturing technique called hot stamping.
Nor is this steel cheaper than other grades of steel. In fact, it's probably a little bit more expensive. But by eliminating all those brackets and extra panels, the total tooling cost of a car goes down, and that's where the costs savings comes from.

To get the maximum 188-pound reduction in the BIW, an automaker would have to design-in the nano steel's capabilities using a clean sheet approach. But ArcelorMittal says that some applications, especially cross-members, lend themselves to running changes on existing designs.

The nano steel does require a newer manufacturing technique called hot stamping. That's where automakers heat up the steel blanks that go into a stamping press to the point where they're literally glowing red. Then they feed the red hot blanks into a press and stamp them into body panels. Heating up the steel makes it much more pliable and enables it to be formed into more complex shapes. Actually, this is a fairly common process already in use today, used to form the high-strength steels that have been available for the last decade and a half. So, while the nano steel requires hot stamping, it's not as if automakers need to make a big investment in manufacturing technology.

Covitic aluminum somehow impregnates aluminum with carbon fiber.
It's very impressive to see the steel industry delve into new technology to keep its product relevant. Aluminum, magnesium and composites definitely pose a competitive threat to steel. But they're also considerably more expensive, are not as easily repaired in most body shops, and require considerably more energy to recycle. That's why they've not found widespread use in cars, or at least not as widespread as steel.

And yet, I've heard tantalizing whispers of the new breakthrough coming in aluminum. It's called covitic aluminum, where somehow they impregnate aluminum with carbon fiber. There, now you know about as much of it as I do.

I'm pretty sure we'll get some sort of announcement later this year about covitic aluminum. But for right now at least, this nano steel seems to be the latest word in materials technology.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      well, jaguar talks about losing 300 lbs going from steel to aluminum, but not sure if that is strictly in BIW or if they include the other savings. either way, awesome. I wonder if that is 188 in Class B/C or in SUV form
      • 4 Years Ago
      Mr. McElroy is awesome! We dig your editorial and news articles as well as your podcasts!

      This new Nanotechnology should make our cars lighter. I hope to see this new technology in the C7 corvette as it releases in 2013 with its new LS powerplant.

      Keep up the great work and keep us up to date with all that is going on in the automotive industry!

      Nanotechnology...Very cool stuff!
      • 4 Years Ago
      Sounds to me like alchemy. I like it.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Amorphous metals have been around since blacksmiths had the idea of putting molten metal into water to rapidly cool it. Nothing new. Just because the metal is amorphous (which the fact that it has to be hot pressed would seem to indicate) doesn't mean the breakthrough came related to that.

        There are many different ways to increase the strength of an alloy. It's kind of hard to gleam much from this article when the article doesn't say anything more than "nanotechnology." They could have changed the basic crystal cell structure (not the general pattern which is absent in an amorphous solid), the ratio of solvent to solute, done something new in regards to making it amorphous (as you mentioned), etc.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Sounds to me like it could be amorphous metal.

      • 4 Years Ago
      Sure, there are quite a few hot stamped parts, but most of them are pretty small. I could see some of the inner structural pieces using this, but I think it's a long way off to make an entire body side, floor pan, or even doors out of this stuff. All of those parts require very large transfer dies and keeping parts hot through the entire process seems like it would be rather difficult and costly.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I wonder if they'll call it Rearden Metal?
      • 4 Years Ago
      This is good news. Now there will be weight savings to make up for all the new "safety" equipment that's continually being mandated.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I'm a metallurgist and I want to know ! We've already developed a number of special high strength steels that are commonly used .But I need facts on any new one not vague comments !
      • 4 Years Ago
      As a metallurgist, I'm very excited to hear about this!!

      I'm curious as to what nano kind of stuff Arcelor is using, beucase typical ultra-high strength steels currently in use feature nano-sized particles to produce strengthening ("precipitation hardening" or PH steels).

      Obviously they have something different that gives better strength/toughness, probably reduces cost, and also gives better formability.

      There are a surprising number of challenges to forming metal. My metals teacher always told us the story of how he helped solve the problem of making soda cans, so you can imagine what goes into fabricating car parts!
      • 4 Years Ago
      I wonder if the author owns Ford stock
        • 4 Years Ago
        50th aniversary mustaaaaang... needs this
        • 4 Years Ago
        Give me a break. High Strength Low Alloy (HSLA) has been around for twenty years...design a car with an extremely high strength steel and you'll lose weight...d'Oh!

        The issue has always (and always will be) cost.
        • 4 Years Ago

        You are correct regarding the cost aspect, but that's only part of it. HSLA's give up a lot of their ductility to achieve those impressive strength numbers. A high-strength steel does allow you to use less material to build an equally strong part, but at that point you're compounding the ductility issue, since you've taken a member made out of brittle material that can't handle cyclic and impact loading as well and made it even thinner. I've never designed a car, but I would imagine that for a production vehicle, longevity, impact loading and cyclic loading would be some of the controlling design criteria.
        • 4 Years Ago

        Yes, I was kidding.
        • 4 Years Ago
        That chassis does look suspiciously Ford like, think Kuga or Vertrek concept.
      • 4 Years Ago
      This is great news! I've got way too much white in my car...
      • 4 Years Ago
      As light as aluminum, as strong as steel and cheaper than making it out of aluminum? I say DO IT!!! Hopefully it won't be too much more expensive than regular steel.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Hyundai has its own steel plant that makes exclusively auto steels. Its the only auto company in the world to do so.

      I'm sure Hyundai is already looking into this for their cars.

        • 4 Years Ago
        I love how Hyundai pays you to plug them in thread after thread no matter what the topic might be.

        At least it is amusing.
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