Steel had a lip-lock on pop and beer drinkers before aluminum snatched the beverage container role decades ago, but that material switch served as a reminder about the pitfall of being complacent.
"If we just sit on our laurels and say, 'Steel makes up 60% of a vehicle now,' technology will pass us by," said Ron Krupitzer, Vice President of the American Iron and Steel Institute's (AISI) Automotive Applications.
Even though the development and use of advanced high-strength steels (AHSS) has helped lightweight vehicles, the steel industry remains in a state of discontent. "Our research has demonstrated that there is further opportunity to reduce vehicle weight and increase structural efficiency if we develop new grades not yet in production anywhere in the world," John Surma, Chairman and CEO of United States Steel Corp. said in his keynote address at AISI's 2008 Great Designs in Steel seminar.
New grades of steel, referred to as third-generation AHSS, are en route. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have committed $3 million toward developing new steel grades and new computerized modeling techniques.
"With the current grades of steel available, there are still applications where material formability limits the strength that can be designed into a part. One of the objectives of the third generation of AHSS is to permit the utilization of higher-strength steels in difficult-to-form parts, such as a B-pillar, without compromising part design or necessitating the need for expensive processing," said Roger Heimbuch, Executive Director of the Auto/Steel Partnership.
In addition to erasing the current limitations, the steel industry is searching for ways to further reduce its carbon footprint. From a lifecycle perspective (from raw material extraction through material production and on through the vehicle's cradle to grave life), AHSSs equate to a 5.7% improvement vs. conventional steels. "If you're using 25% less steel—which is the case when using AHSS in place of conventional steels—that is a reduction in the amount of steel being produced. Another important lifecycle fact is that since 1990, the industry has reduced by 29% the amount of energy it takes to make a ton of steel," said Jody Shaw, Manager of Technical Marketing and Product Research for United States Steel.
AISI, the DOE, and the University of Utah are investigating an alternative iron-making technology that uses hydrogen. "This technology has the potential to reduce energy consumption by more than 30% when compared to blast-furnace iron making, and the technology may reduce or eliminate environmental emissions," said Joe Vehec, Director of the Technology Roadmap Program for AISI. Concurs Krupitzer, "Without a breakthrough in the process of making steel, there's only going to be incremental CO2 improvements."
The gas-solid suspension iron-making technology has been demonstrated in a laboratory setting. "Now the project, with funding from AISI member companies, moves to a bench-scale program to evaluate the scale-up perimeters of this process. The next phase would be to construct a pilot-scale facility, which ultimately would lead to a commercial plant, possibly in the 2015 time frame," said Vehec.
Much like the steel industry did with past projects (i.e., UltraLight Steel Auto Body/ULSAB, UltraLight Steel Auto Closures, UltraLight Steel Auto Suspensions, and the ULSAB-Advanced Vehicle Concepts), the WorldAutoSteel organization's Future Steel Vehicle program aims to demonstrate steel's role in vehicle architectures. The latest project will feature a steel structure for a fuel-cell, a plug-in hybrid-electric, or an electric vehicle.
"Phase one of the Future Steel Vehicle program is an engineering study managed by EDAG. The partner companies include Quantum of California, Advanced Lithium Power of Canada, Schuler of Germany, and Tongji SFCV of China, which is the company providing the fuel-cell vehicles for the 2008 summer Olympics," said Shaw, who is serving as the chairman of the Future Steel Vehicle project.
Whether or not the three-year Future Steel Vehicle project will end with an actual vehicle or a functional powertrain with a structural steel skeleton has yet to be determined. But, according to Shaw, the 16 international steel companies that are funding the project definitely want to demonstrate how steel can play a significant role in vehicles of the future.