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Aluminium in the automotive industry

A modern car with components made of aluminium can be 24 percent lighter than one with
components made of steel, which also allows fuel consumption to be reduced by 2 litres per
100 kilometres.
Car manufacturers first started to use aluminium over a hundred years ago. Back then aluminium
was a new and a poorly explored metal, however its light weight and corrosion resistance
showed the metal's great potential for application in the emerging automotive industry. The first
sports car featuring a body made of aluminium was presented to the general public at the Berlin
international motor show in 1899. The first engine with aluminium parts was made two years
later, when in 1901 Carl Benz, later a world-famous manufacturer, presented a new car for the
prestigious race in Nice. The 'light metal' added to the handling of the car, but difficulties
in metal working, lack of knowledge and its high price impeded the use of aluminium in mass
car production in the beginning of the century.
It was only after the war with aluminium becoming more accessible and cheaper, that the British
company Land Rover started an in-depth exploration of the properties of 'winged metal'.
In 1961 the company presented and later launched into mass production the Buick 215 with
an eight-cylinder V8 engine. Cylinder blocks of this engine were made of aluminium. With
a weight of only 144 kg the engine was a real breakthrough. It immediately became popular
among race-drivers. It was light and allowed for a considerable advantage during acceleration.
When in 1962 the legendary American racer Mickey Thompson drove a car with an engine made
of the light-weight metal during the 'Indianapolis 500', the engine demonstrated great
performance. In the course of time many companies improved this legendary engine to use
it in mass-produced models and race cars, including in Formula-1 cars.
When in the seventies the oil crisis broke out, car manufacturers began to search for ways
to reduce fuel consumption. The best method was to reduce the weight of the vehicle. The
calculations showed that reducing a medium-sized car's weight by 100 kg would result
in a saving of 700 litres of fuel during the vehicle's lifetime. Thus, car manufacturers started
to replace numerous car units with those made of aluminium, therefore reducing the total weight
of vehicles. Today, an average of 110-145 kg of aluminium is used in production of an average
car, a figure which continues to grow
with every year.
Advanced high-tensile aluminium
alloys can now completely supersede
steel that has conventionally been used
to make a vehicle body, the most
important car component. This was
proved by Audi engineers, who
in 1994 released a passenger A8 model
with the complete body made
of aluminium. The model showed a weight reduction of 239 kg!
Audi has been studying aluminium applications for 20 years by intensive R&D projects. Release
of the ASF space frame marked the birthday of a high-duty aluminium frame structure with
embedded large aluminium panels that absorb a part of load. Stamped aluminium panels are
connected with multifunctional cast elements. This new structure also required new technologies
to be applied. For this purpose, new light alloys and material treatment technologies were
developed.
First produced in 1997, aluminium body cars were a riot even among the Audi fans. Today, all-
aluminium bodies are installed on Audi A2 (advanced design) and A8 (updated design) models.
According to the information from the company's Russian representative office,
133,000 of A2 and 117,000 of A8 have been produced since 1993.
A new generation of offroader Land Rover Range Rover will also have an important difference
from its predecessor, namely an aluminium body. Although Ford, the parent company, has not
officially approved completion of this technology for Range Rover, sources from within the
company believe the approval will be granted in the coming months. One of the sources made
a following comment, 'We're just waiting here to be told: OK, guys, get it on!' An aluminium
body will help to reduce Range Rover's weight by about 300-400 kg as compared to the current
model. However, in Land Rover's lineup this car will still remain the most pompous and
presentable with the most spacious and exquisite interior. An aluminium body will also allow for
the fuel economy to be improved, the CO emissions to be reduced. Dynamics and handling
behaviour are also expected to improve.
Mazda engineers have designed a revolutionary idea of welding together aluminium and steel
that will be first utilised in industrial
production of parts for the new model
of RX-8 sports car. So far it was
considered impossible to weld
aluminium and steel together.
Mazda engineers resolved this task
by heating up upper layers
of aluminium by attrition (like
in a microwave oven), with
simultaneous galvanising of welding
surface of steel. The corrosion process
enables aluminium particles
to penetrate the structure of steel and
form a reliable adhesion. The new cutting-edge technology opens broad prospects for the
automotive industry to produce combined aluminium-and-steel bodies for cars with partial use
of welding instead of clamps. It enhances durability and reliability of structures, making them
more light-weight at the same time. Mazda specialists have obtained over 20 patents in the
framework of developing the new technology.
Not so long ago Jaguar announced the birth of the first representative of its sports cars new
generation — Jaguar XK model. The technology of producing the body of the car is worth giving
attention to. What is unique about it is the first industrial application in the automotive industry
of an integral all-aluminium 'monocoque'-type body. Having developed aviation technologies
where light-weighting is the critical factor, Jaguar managed to introduce the light and durable
body design, some parts of which can be fasten together both by clamps and epoxy adhesives, for
batch production.
BMW 5-series was designed actively using aluminium parts — the 'winged metal' served as the
material for nearly all elements of the fore carriage. According to specialists, such a decision was
inspired by the wish of BMW engineers to decrease the overall weight of the car and at the same
time to even out its distribution by axes. This decision will have a positive effect on the car
driveability.
Today aluminium is the second most used material (in percentage terms) of the total weight
of the car. It is used to make components of the suspension, the chassis, cylinder blocks and
other engine components. It is believed that 1 kg of aluminium can replace up to 2 kg of steel
and cast iron in many areas of application.
The more aluminium is used in the production of a vehicle, the less the weight of the vehicle
is and the less fuel it consumes, thereby reducing the amount of harmful emissions into the
atmosphere. The calculations showed that in 2006 the automotive industry output reached
65 million vehicles. If during manufacturing of each of these vehicles their bodies, engines and
other components had been made of aluminium instead of steel, the CO2 emissions into the air
would have been reduced by 140 million tonnes, and the total fuel economy during the lifetime
of all vehicles would have allowed to save 60 billion litres of crude oil.