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When the best-selling US truck sheds the equivalent weight of three football fullbacks by shifting to aluminum, folks start paying attention. Oak Ridge National Laboratory took a closer look at whether the reduced fuel consumption from a lighter aluminum body makes up for the fact that producing aluminum is far more energy intensive than steel. And the results of the study are pretty encouraging.

In a nutshell, the energy needed to produce a vehicle's raw materials accounts for about 10 percent of a typical vehicle's carbon footprint during its total lifecycle, and that number is up from six percent because of advancements in fuel economy (fuel use is down to about 68 percent of total emissions from about 75 percent). Still, even with that higher material-extraction share, the fuel-efficiency gains from aluminum compared to steel will offset the additional vehicle-extraction energy in just 12,000 miles of driving, according to the study. That means that, from an environmental standpoint, aluminum vehicles are playing with the house's money after just one year on the road.

Aluminum-sheet construction got topical real quickly earlier this year when Ford said the 2015 F-150 pickup truck would go to a 93-percent aluminum body construction. In addition to aluminum being less corrosive than steel, that change caused the F-150 to shed 700 pounds from its curb weight. And it looks like the Explorer and Expedition SUVs may go on an aluminum diet next. Take a look at SAE International's synopsis of the Oak Ridge Lab's study below.
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Life Cycle Energy and Environmental Assessment of Aluminum-Intensive Vehicle Design

Advanced lightweight materials are increasingly being incorporated into new vehicle designs by automakers to enhance performance and assist in complying with increasing requirements of corporate average fuel economy standards. To assess the primary energy and carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) implications of vehicle designs utilizing these materials, this study examines the potential life cycle impacts of two lightweight material alternative vehicle designs, i.e., steel and aluminum of a typical passenger vehicle operated today in North America.

LCA for three common alternative lightweight vehicle designs are evaluated: current production ("Baseline"), an advanced high strength steel and aluminum design ("LWSV"), and an aluminum-intensive design (AIV). This study focuses on body-in-white and closures since these are the largest automotive systems by weight accounting for approximately 40% of total curb weight of a typical passenger vehicle. Secondary mass savings resulting from body lightweighting are considered for the vehicles' engine, driveline and suspension.

A "cradle-to-cradle" life cycle assessment (LCA) was conducted for these three vehicle material alternatives. LCA methodology for this study included material production, mill semi-fabrication, vehicle use phase operation, and end-of-life recycling. This study followed international standards ISO 14040:2006 [1] and ISO 14044:2006 [2], consistent with the automotive LCA guidance document currently being developed [3].

Vehicle use phase mass reduction was found to account for over 90% of total vehicle life cycle energy and CO2e emissions. The AIV design achieved mass reduction of 25% (versus baseline) resulting in reductions in total life cycle primary energy consumption by 20% and CO2e emissions by 17%. Overall, the AIV design showed the best breakeven vehicle mileage from both primary energy consumption and climate change perspectives.


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  • 19 Comments
      Joeviocoe
      • 8 Months Ago
      The relevance of this article is NOT that lighter materials save energy over the life of the car... that is duh. But rather, one of the recurring FUD/Myths of higher efficiency cars... that the efficiency gains are just displacing the emissions to the production factory. This has been repeated by detractors of both EVs and Hybrids... from "Prius is dirtier than Hummer" folks,... to "Tesla batteries pollute far worse" folks. The misinformation campaign is deep.... and we should continue to educate people that production emissions and consumption is only ~10% of the overall emissions profile of a conventional car.... so even if mining lithium and rare earth metals are a slightly bigger concern than the heavy smelting needed for engines and transmissions... it is well worth it. Likewise, if Aluminium is a bit more energy intensive compared to steel... it is well worth it too.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I believe I read somewhere that Aluminum doesn't have a memory. So what does insurance cost on one these wreck and melt down Trucks?
        Joeviocoe
        • 8 Months Ago
        Costly air bags, expensive electronics, and lightweight body materials are driving up the cost of fixing new cars. Not only do many more parts have to be replaced rather than repaired, but fewer and fewer body shops can afford the special equipment and training required to do the work."We're moving closer and closer to the disposable car," says Dan Bailey, an executive vice president at Carstar, the largest auto-body repair franchise in the United States And then there's aluminum. At least five cars come with all-aluminum bodies and frames, including the Audi A8, Acura NSX, Honda Insight, Mercedes CL, and the new Jaguar XJ8. So far, few body shops are authorized to fix these cars. For example, only 13 body shops nationwide can do repairs on the XJ8. So if you wreck one in a remote area, insurance companies will factor in the cost of shipping it to an authorized shop. Body shops that deal with aluminum have to wall off separate work areas and buy tools separate from those used on steel cars. That's because steel shavings can contaminate aluminum. Because aluminum is difficult to weld, most parts are "bonded" (glued) and riveted together. A riveting tool to replace aluminum parts costs $10,000. Another tool to remove rivets runs $9,000. The total investment in training and tools to run an aluminum-body repair shop can run as much as $200,000. They've already raised rates on cars with xenon headlights. "Aluminum cars are too new to have reliable figures. And the companies are trying to stay competitive. But it will happen," he says of higher rates for aluminum cars. To reduce costs, the repair industry is now pushing for measures that would allow body shops to use "preowned" never-used air bags from cars in junkyards. "That will have to come," says Bailey. Meanwhile, the industry is bracing for more and more technology. "This is something the automakers have to do to meet their fuel economy requirements," says Bailey. "And we're going to have to learn to deal with it." http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0419/p13s02-wmgn.html
      danfred311
      • 8 Months Ago
      Study: water is wet. Also if you don't buy a pickup as your daily driver, the risk of being violently stupid goes way down.
      Actionable Mango
      • 8 Months Ago
      "In addition to aluminum being less corrosive than steel" I wasn't aware of that. On the other hand, I do believe that aluminum is more resistant to corrosion than steel.
      2 wheeled menace
      • 8 Months Ago
      Of course... you make the car once, but moving less mass and having lower tire friction as a result lasts for the entire life of the car.. this was figured out over a century ago.. it's a shame that it was only considered for the most popular form of mainstream transport within the last few years. Oh well. Go Ford!
      Spec
      • 8 Months Ago
      And a great thing about aluminum is that it recycles really well.
      Actionable Mango
      • 8 Months Ago
      Isn't aluminum far more expensive than steel? Was there a big price increase at retail, or is Ford eating the cost difference?
        SteveG
        • 8 Months Ago
        @Actionable Mango
        Per pound sure, but steel is a lot lighter.
        2 wheeled menace
        • 8 Months Ago
        @Actionable Mango
        It's far more expensive than crap steel, but not a whole lot more than stainless, chromoly etc. and you need less pounds of it
        Beebe
        • 8 Months Ago
        @Actionable Mango
        I recently read an article that stated the increased cost of making the truck out of aluminum will be $700 per truck. basically $1 per pound saved. I don't think $700 makes a big difference when the truck is $25,000 to $55,000 to begin with. I hope the figure I read is accurate. I was expecting a bigger difference than $700. This is important to me as I am in the market now and waiting for the 2015 f-150 to be available before I buy a truck.
      • 8 Months Ago
      Thank you captain obvious! Of course it will improve fuel economy, so will any lightweight material. But the true test comes in the other factors of the material.
      Neutral President
      • 8 Months Ago
      "Lightweight" is a verb now? You crazy kids!
      ilkhan
      • 8 Months Ago
      And I say again unto ye, Ford. Aluminum Ranger with the 2.7L EcoBoost in it. Or an aluminum bodied explorer based on said Ranger with the same engine.
      Levine Levine
      • 8 Months Ago
      So what's the difference in mpg between regular and diet F150? Danny King, you sinner, why are you hiding the ball?
      JB
      • 8 Months Ago
      Newton and F=ma is correct! Thanks ABG.
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