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Greenhouse Gas Emissions Payback for Lightweighted Vehicles Using Aluminum and High-Strength Steel


Address correspondence to:
Dr. Hyung-Ju Kim
Department of Mechanical Engineering
College of Engineering
University of Michigan
2250 GG Brown Building
2350 Hayward Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA


In this article we consider interactions between life cycle emissions and materials flows associated with lightweighting (LW) automobiles. Both aluminum and high-strength steel (HSS) lightweighting are considered, with LW ranging from 6% to 23% on the basis of literature references and input from industry experts. We compare the increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with producing lightweight vehicles with the saved emissions during vehicle use. This yields a calculation of how many years of vehicle use are required to offset the added GHG emissions from the production stage. Payback periods for HSS are shorter than for aluminum. Nevertheless, achieving significant LW with HSS comparable to aluminum-intensive vehicles requires not only material substitution but also the achievement of secondary LW by downsizing of other vehicle components in addition to the vehicle structure. GHG savings for aluminum LW varies strongly with location where the aluminum is produced and whether secondary aluminum can be utilized instead of primary. HSS is less sensitive to these parameters. In principle, payback times for vehicles lightweighted with aluminum can be shortened by closed-loop recycling of wrought aluminum (i.e., use of secondary wrought aluminum). Over a 15-year time horizon, however, it is unlikely that this could significantly reduce emissions from the automotive industry, given the challenges involved with enabling a closed-loop aluminum infrastructure without downcycling automotive body structures.

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