European Electric Vehicles Need More Aluminium

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By Massimiliano Saltori, European Science Communication Institute

There are ambitious plans for the future of sustainable mobility in the European Union. On June 8th, the European Parliament voted to stop producing CO2-emitting vehicles by 2035. The 27 member states will now vote on the agreement — in true European fashion. Once implemented, the ban will effectively force the European automobile industry to stop manufacturing internal combustion engine vehicles within the next 13 years.

In addition to this radical agreement, EU lawmakers approved a further 55% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030. Before this, the car industry had been required to lower carbon emissions by 37.5% by the decade’s end.

The ban has faced criticisms, mainly from automotive lobbyists and conservative legislators — in many cases with practical concerns. Despite this, given Europe’s recent rise in temperatures, it is easy to understand why such drastic changes were deemed necessary.

Road transport alone generates 22% of EU total greenhouse gas emissions, with cars accounting for as much as 12%. These figures may seem modest when compared with the US, where emissions from cars reach a staggering 38%. Yet they are still significant in our ongoing fight against global warming.

In a bid to achieve rapid carbon neutrality by 2050, the EU is now looking to electric vehicles (EVs) for help – and it seems that automobile manufacturers and consumers are betting on them as well.

The EV market has grown impressively over the past year, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. In the first quarter of 2022, two million EVs were sold worldwide, up 35% from the prior year despite supply chain strains. Of all the passenger cars sold in the EU last year, 18% were electric or plug-in hybrids.

Although it’s enjoying a favourable moment, the European EV industry still faces high manufacturing costs and critical resource bottlenecks. For example modern EV manufacturing relies heavily on components such as aluminium.

This metal already makes up about 15% of the bodywork of today’s mass-produced cars. Yet, the number exceeds 50% in EVs, making this industry highly vulnerable to shortages of so-called critical raw materials (CRMs) essential to aluminium production.

Currently 84% of the bauxite ore imported into the EU arrives from Africa, while magnesium and silicon overwhelmingly come from China. As a result, due to the current geopolitical climate, it is not surprising that European policymakers are considering resuming CRM extraction locally within the next few years. However, restarting mass primary production and mining may dramatically raise the EU’s CO2 emissions, undermining future carbon neutrality plans.

Nevertheless, aluminium is also recognized as one of the most versatile metals on the market. As a matter of fact, 75% of all the aluminium ever produced is still around today in one form or another, as it can be recycled virtually forever. This well-known fact is also at the core of a recently launched industrial plan promoted by a transnational research consortium that may benefit European EV manufacturers soon.

“Aluminium is fundamental for future electric cars because of its main characteristic: lightness,” says Ruggero Zambelli, quality manager at RAFFMETAL, the largest European producer of recycled aluminium foundry alloys. “The weight of the battery is one of the main problems in electric vehicles today. A lighter chassis made of aluminium makes that less critical, giving the car a longer operating range. […] Also, aluminium has high thermal conductivity, making heat dissipation from the battery easier. That way, there’s a gain in both battery autonomy and driver’s safety.”

RAFFMETAL is one of the 16 partners from six European countries involved in SALEMA, a newly-launched research project funded by the EU. This initiative began in May 2021 to make the EV industry greener while reducing the EU’s reliance on imported CRMs. In total SALEMA will develop five case studies using different aluminium car parts: the shock tower, the frontal frame, the B pillars, the battery box, and the body in white.

To achieve this the manufacturing chain will inevitably need to evolve. “Aluminium has always been recycled, but mostly to produce low-quality components: medium mechanical requirements and mainly castings,” explains Manuel da Silva, manager at the EURECAT Technology Centre, a world-renowned R&D centre in southern Europe and another of SALEMA’s partners. “We are now planning to develop alloys for stamping, extrusion and die casting — which, until now, had to be made with primary aluminium. This will allow us to enter into applications that were impossible before.”

EURECAT will conduct primary research to develop partially recycled alloys while at the same time helping aluminium producers adapt their manufacturing processes to these changes. New alloys with low CRM content such as silicon and magnesium will also be used to prevent resource waste.

But that’s not the end of it. As Christian Leroy of the European Aluminium Association explains, “SALEMA is betting on two different ways to replace these elements: one is recycling scrap aluminium, extracting the CRMs already present in it. The second step involves replacing them with other non-critical elements, such as iron or manganese. There are iron-based alloys with magnesium that can have excellent mechanical properties.”

By the end of the project in 2024, SALEMA’s partners will evaluate these newly developed alloys based on their performance. In doing so they will identify the most promising processes for rapid market uptake.

The intergration of aluminum into a circular economy model envisaged by SALEMA.

If successful and popular among European car manufacturers, this could lead to a more innovative EV production approach, giving the EU a solid position in this crucial industry.

The Multipick automatized scrap metal sorting system.
Aluminium parts being manufactured with high pressure die casting in the facilities of ENDURANCE (partner organisation).
Aluminium parts being manufactured with high pressure die casting in the facilities of ENDURANCE (partner organisation).
Aluminium parts being manufactured with high pressure die casting in the facilities of ENDURANCE (partner organisation).

All images courtesy of SALEMA.

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