Dissecting the Aluminum Car
For over 20 years, the demand for smaller, more lightweight and fuel efficient cars has increased. Automakers have responded to this demand, in large part, by replacing steel wherever possible with aluminum. This trend is particularly evident in North America, which leads the world in vehicular aluminum use. With this growth in aluminum use expected to expand for the foreseeable future, it is worth learning more about this complex metal and where it shows up in the modern automobile.
Aluminum: The Omnipresent Metal
Aluminum is our planet’s most abundant metal and our most versatile. It is used in a range of industries including transportation (rail, aerospace, automobile, marine vessels), construction (doors, windows, siding, etc,) packaging (cans, foil), home (cookware, appliances, etc.), and long-distance electricity distribution. Aluminum is also popularly employed as binding posts known as Chicago screws that are found in offices and on restaurants menus around the world.
Heat Treating Alloys to Bring out its Strength
Aluminum’s lightweight, corrosion resistant and pliable qualities make this unique metal one of the world’s most treasured commodities. Aluminum does have one major drawback; pure aluminum is too soft for most uses mentioned above. It must be combined with metal alloys such as copper, iron and other elements to give it strength while preserving its lightweight and malleable qualities. This transformation is accomplished through various metallurgic processes such as aluminum solution heat treating. When properly alloyed, aluminum becomes light and durable with a strength that matches that of steel.
Key Places where you’ll find Aluminum
Aluminum and aluminum alloys can be found throughout the modern automobile from the body frame and hood, right down to the smallest bolts. Below are the most common places to find aluminum.
Increasingly automakers are using aluminum in suspension components like front and rear wheel suspension control arms, shock absorber pivot mounts, spiral compression springs and wheels. The lightweight nature of aluminum reduces impact force and increases the life of these suspension components.
Historically, the bulky part of a car’s engine consisting of the head and block were made of cast iron. Though better for heat dispersion, cast iron added considerable weight and did little for automotive handling and fuel efficiency. Nowadays, the majority of cylinder blocks and heads are aluminum. Internal mechanical components including cylinders and the crankshaft are still designed in cast iron or steel. The aluminum engine provides faster acceleration, improved fuel efficiency and greater performance overall.
The Future of Aluminum in Cars
The amount of aluminum in cars has grown steadily over the last couple of decades. Aluminum has allowed automakers to reduce vehicle weight significantly while still maintaining both strength and size. What remains to be seen is a fully functional, mass-produced car with an aluminum body throughout. Advanced production techniques and new types of alloys will no doubt reveal the all-aluminum frame car before long.