Alcoa looks to expand use of aluminum sheet in cars

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Technology developed by Alcoa researchers in Pittsburgh has become the linchpin of the aluminum producer's plan to expand use of the metal from high-end German luxury cars to aluminum-intensive pickup trucks, minivans and other top-selling vehicles.

Randall Scheps, the executive in charge of selling Alcoa's aluminum sheet to the automotive market, said automotive demand for the product is forecast to increase fourfold by 2015 and 10 times by 2025.

A new process for treating aluminum sheet makes adhesive bonds between the metal and other components last longer. That means aluminum sheet can be used in the structural framework of motor vehicles, Mr. Scheps said during a telephone interview Tuesday.

The technology was developed at Alcoa's Technical Center near Upper Burrell.

Mr. Scheps said the breakthrough will allow carmakers to use aluminum to take hundreds of pounds of weight out of large cars without sacrificing performance.

"We're about to see aluminum make that step into mass market vehicles," he said.

He declined to comment on industry reports that Ford soon will announce that the redesigned version of its popular Ford F-150 truck will feature an aluminum body. The truck already has an aluminum hood, as do about 40 percent of the motor vehicles in the North American market, he said.

Industry analysts expect aluminum to capture headlines at the North American International Auto Show next month in Detroit. The showcase event has been used over the years to unveil major industry advancements.

The effort to make cars lighter and more fuel-efficient is driven by federal standards that will require the average car or light-duty truck to get 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Ducker Worldwide, a research firm that advises steel and aluminum producers, has estimated carmakers will have to eliminate 400 pounds -- or about 10 percent of the weight of an average car -- in order to meet those standards.

Steel and aluminum producers are competing to develop stronger, lighter-weight metals that will enable the auto industry to meet the fuel efficiency standards without compromising safety, style or comfort.

To a great extent, the competition has been a matter of aluminum's cost vs. steel's weight. The price of aluminum has been easier to hide in the price tags of Audis and other luxury vehicles.

But rising gasoline prices, demands for fuel efficiency and new technology have helped aluminum muscle its way deeper into the automotive market.

In May, U.S. Steel and Kobe Steel commissioned a $400 million expansion of their Leipsic, Ohio, joint venture, which produces high-strength steels for the automotive industry.

Alcoa is investing $575 million to expand production at plants in Davenport, Iowa, and Alcoa, Tenn., to meet demand from the auto industry. Mr. Scheps said 99 percent of the new capacity at the Iowa plant is secured by long-term contracts and that most of the new Tennessee capacity also is committed by long-term contracts.

Novelis, Alcoa's Atlanta-based competitor, commissioned two new automotive sheet lines in Oswego, N.Y., in October and is building a similar facility in China.

Carmakers have to decide what materials to use in new models about three or four years in advance of putting them into production. Based on the investments of Alcoa and Novelis, some big decisions have already been made in favor of their metal.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," Mr. Scheps said of the news anticipated to be announced at the upcoming auto show. "We can certainly say that every year is going to be big for aluminum for the foreseeable future."

Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941.

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