Growing Use of Automotive Aluminum Sheet Delivers Environmental and Economic Advantages, New Report Details
Recyclers, automakers and environment benefit from aluminum’s sustainable properties
Aluminum is the fastest growing automotive material, and its use is expected to grow to record content levels of 514 pounds per vehicle by 2026, due largely to increased use of auto body sheet (ABS). As ABS growth accelerates, new research published in the Resources, Conservation & Recycling (RCR) Journal finds aluminum ABS scrap demand too will reach an all-time high in the next decade as the first mass produced aluminum-bodied vehicles—the Ford F-150, Super Duty, Expedition and Lincoln Navigator—reach end of life.
“Ford’s mass-produced aluminum-intensive vehicles broke sales and sustainability barriers when they first hit dealerships a few short years ago. Today, through ongoing collaboration across the aluminum and automotive industries, great opportunity exists for a significant reduction in carbon emissions with widespread use of recycled auto body sheet,” said Tom Dobbins, president and CEO, the Aluminum Association.
Conducted by experts at the University of Michigan, Ford Motor Company and Light Metal Consultants, LLC, the report titled, “The Coming Wave of Aluminum Sheet Scrap from Vehicle Recycling in the United States” uses a dynamic flow analysis to estimate aluminum ABS scrap generated from the Ford F-150, Super Duty, Expedition and Lincoln Navigator—today’s highest-selling aluminum intensive vehicles in North America. These four vehicles represent approximately 65% of all the aluminum ABS embedded in the U.S. light-duty vehicle fleet and 61% of the aluminum ABS added to the U.S. fleet each year.
As Ford’s aluminum-intensive trucks and SUVs begin to reach end of life in the next decade, vast environmental and economic benefits will follow when they are scrapped. Researchers find that if production of the F-150, Super Duty, Expedition and Lincoln Navigator continue at current volumes, “aluminum ABS scrap from these vehicles will increase to approximately 125 kilotons (kt) per year in 2035 and 246 kt/year in 2050.” This is twice as much as current levels of aluminum ABS scrap.
“On Earth Day, and every day, research initiatives like this one are key to better understanding how pursuing decarbonization in auto manufacturing on the front end—through greater use of sustainable materials like aluminum—also pays strong environmental and economic dividends on the backend when those vehicles reach their end of useful life on the road. While there is work to do to fully maximize the future benefits of the coming wave of aluminum sheet scrap, our industries are starting from a place of strength and commitment,” said Marshall Wang, senior sustainability specialist, the Aluminum Association.
From cradle to grave, numerous independent studies confirm aluminum offers the smallest full lifecycle carbon footprint compared to steel. Additionally, manufacturing vehicles using recycled aluminum lowers vehicle production carbon footprint and helps automakers reach aggressive sustainability targets. The energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions associated with recycling aluminum are just 5% of those associated with primary aluminum production. The expected surge in aluminum scrap available for processing also presents economic opportunity for recyclers to enter higher value markets by selling wrought rather than casting alloys. For automakers, realizing the latent value in recycling aluminum alloys through a closed-loop system helps reduce total system cost.
In the report, researchers also analyze opportunities in the recycling ecosystem that could drive wide-spread adoption of standardized closed-loop recycling processes designed to improve energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions associated with primary aluminum production and support the global automotive industry in its efforts to create clean energy transportation solutions. Additional findings include aluminum ABS recycling projections through 2050 and implications for the future of automotive recycling, which include an estimated savings of 950,000 tons of carbon emissions for a recycled volume of 125 kt of aluminum scrap in 2035.
The same team that produced this report will partner with the Aluminum Association and other stakeholders to conduct future research to ensure aluminum ABS scrap from end-of-life vehicles goes back to make new automotive sheet for future vehicles. This research will help close the material loop and support key sustainability priorities for the aluminum industry. The REMADE Institute, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, recently awarded this research proposal a grant to fund the project.