If you’re a mountain biker or cyclist, you’ve without doubt been asked if your bike is made of aluminum or steel. Now, the aluminum-or-steel debate has reached vehicles on an even more common road: everyday automobiles.

Utilized by the automobile industry for more than a century, aluminum is still second to steel for the majority of today’s vehicles. (The first automobile to be manufactured with a steel body in the U.S. was the 1901 Eastman Steamer; alternatively, the first vehicle with an aluminum body was the 1902 Marmon, according to Motor Era.)

However, market growth in aluminum automotive manufacturing has recently surged and it’s expected to continue.

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Why is aluminum awesome for automobiles?

What exactly are the benefits of using aluminum for automobile construction?

For starters, aluminum body structures are equal or greater in strength compared to steel, which increases the security, safety and longevity of the vehicle. With stout durability, aluminum absorbs double the amount of energy than steel in the instance of an impact.

Aluminum is also lighter weight than steel. As a result, it is more energy efficient material. The Aluminum Association points out that aluminum use saves the equivalent of 108 million barrels of crude oil in energy compared to traditional steel vehicles. In another analysis, it was found that an aluminum vehicle can achieve up to a 20 percent reduction in total life cycle energy consumption and a 17 percent reduction in CO2 emissions compared to a steel-and-aluminum mixed vehicle, revealed a 2014 peer-reviewed Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) report.

Furthermore, because aluminum is lighter, automakers are able to make body panels thicker without accruing weight gain, which increases dent resistance.

Energy efficiency boom

For automobile makers, increasing fuel efficiency is a huge—if not the largest—incentive. Consumers desire an improved fuel economy. Though, the federal government is also applying pressure. Based on the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) program, vehicles will be required to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Jumpstart its more efficient designs, Ford released the mainstream F-150 in 2014—a top-selling truck in the country—which became the inaugural pickup truck to be made with a completely aluminum body. The aluminum increased the truck’s overall frame strength and allowed the body to lose 700 pounds.  

Automotive aluminum recycling

However, one of the greatest benefits of using aluminum for automobile creation is its ability to be recycled and recovered.

More than a half-million tons of automotive aluminum scrap surfaces annually. Of that scrap pile, close to 90 percent of the aluminum is recovered and recycled. The material is shredded and sorted, using machinery such as General Kinematics’ secondary sorting solutions. Then, those shreds are melted down, recast and fabricated, reassembled and painted: Aluminum exemplifies an infinite, full-circle recyclable.

Good thing it’s so sleek and fun to drive (or ride), too.

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  • Amy Donahue

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