When we think of a product’s environmental impact we often fail to consider its entire lifecycle. How is a low-carbon-emissions vehicle manufactured? Where was that biodegradable packaging sourced? You can’t have a truly “green” product unless you consider the whole picture—from design and raw materials sourcing through manufacture and reuse.
Let’s apply this principle to the auto industry. Because of regulations aimed at fuel economy and CO2 reduction car manufacturers have largely focused on producing lighter cars with reduced tailpipe emissions. But regulating for the vehicle’s use phase alone tends to encourage the use of low-density, greenhouse gas-intensive materials (like carbon fiber) which add to the overall footprint of the vehicle’s total lifecycle.
In the auto world, it’s vital we begin to consider the total lifecycle of a vehicle, especially as we move towards more advanced car engines and cleaner fuel sources and material production accounts for a larger percentage of total lifecycle emissions.
This is the argument put forward by the steel industry earlier this month. Without a doubt, steel producers have their own agenda here, and let’s not forget that the steel industry itself accounts for eight percent of the world’s carbon emissions, according to consultants McKinsey. But consider the argument.
On the heels of its new FutureSteelVehicle (FSV) project, WorldAutoSteel claims that carbon fiber, aluminum and magnesium give off “five to twenty times more greenhouse gases during manufacturing than steel.” Therefore, when car manufacturers use these materials in their vehicles instead of steel, they are increasing their carbon footprint from a total lifecycle perspective.
WorldAutoSteel’s FutureSteelVehicle project focused on developing fully engineered, lightweight steel-intensive designs for electrified vehicles that reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the entire lifecycle. The steel body structure designs, WorldAutoSteel states, reduce mass by more than 35 percent over a benchmark vehicle and reduce total lifecycle emissions by nearly 70 percent.
WorldAutoSteel claims that based on its new steels’ light weighting capabilities, steel is the only material to achieve reductions in all lifecycle phases.
The steel industry is in part reacting to the gaining popularity of carbon fiber in auto manufacturing. Carbon fiber—found in race cars, airplane wings and super-expensive mountain bikes—is gaining more attention in the car industry because it’s extremely lightweight—30 percent lighter than aluminum and 50 percent lighter than steel. It’s also very strong, when carbon fibers are woven together and mixed with resin they can produce a part that is stronger than steel.
Auto manufacturers looking to get into the electric car business—think BMW—are investing in carbon fiber technology as an alternative to steel and aluminum. And in crash tests, BMW says, its non-corrosive carbon fiber vehicles beat out traditional aluminum car frames for safety too. As of last week BMW and Volkswagen are both considering buying shares in carbon fiber producer SGL.
However, the process of making carbon fiber is labor-intensive and slow, and for most car manufacturers used to cutting steel body-parts in a few seconds, carbon fiber is not yet proved practical for high-volume production.
What about recyclability? Steel and aluminum is easy to recycle (30 percent of all steel production comes from recycled scrap) but carbon fiber is not. Carmakers are working with aerospace firms on ways to do it. BMW reuses carbon fiber offcuts by breaking them up with heat and turning them back into raw material. This process only produces carbon fiber half the strength of brand new fiber. However, carbon fiber is non-corrosive so the overall life of a vehicle could potentially be increased, with less need for maintenance and repair.
WorldAutoSteel argues that a lifecycle assessment approach assists automakers in evaluating and reducing the total energy consumed and the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of their products.
Is your company concerned with the entire lifecycle of its products? Is it possible to keep tabs on every aspect of a product’s lifecycle, and if so, how can this be achieved?