Researchers Strengthen Aluminum Alloy

April 20, 2018

Purdue University and Rice University researchers found a way to make aluminum alloys stronger than steel.

It’s no secret that aluminum has been a hot-button material for the automotive industry due to its lightweight properties—and new research that could potentially make aluminum stronger and more ductile should make it easier for OEMs to jump on board and make the switch.

For the past 15 years, researchers at Purdue University have worked on developing a new high-strength aluminum alloy. While most aluminum alloys on the market today are soft and have low mechanical strength, thus requiring the use of steel, the team aimed to create an alloy with increased ductility and strength equivalent to stainless steel. The project started with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Most lightweight aluminum alloys are soft and have inherently low mechanical strength, which hinders more widespread industrial application,” Xinghang Zhang, professor in Purdue University’s School of Materials Engineering, said in a statement. “However, high-strength, lightweight aluminum alloys with strength comparable to stainless steels would revolutionize the automobile and aerospace industries.”

FenderBender spoke with Zhang and shop owners to discuss the construction of this high-strength aluminum alloy, and how it’s going to change the makeup of vehicles moving forward as aluminum slowly takes over the market.

What’s New About This Alloy

Right now, the aluminum on the market can be as strong as steel. The Purdue University’s alloy has the potential to make aluminum in the auto market even stronger than steel.

The addition of particles, such as iron, helped make this aluminum alloy even stronger and more ductile.

 Previously, researchers had not discovered a process to make even stronger aluminum alloys until the Purdue University research team partnered with a research team from Rice University in Houston.

The teams discovered a process using a laser beam that can add in other particles of other metals (like iron) to improve the strength of aluminum. Steel already has these impurities added into it and most aluminum on the market has weaker atomic bonding, compared to steels.

But, if this aluminum, which is one-third as dense as steel, were to be further invested in and used as a body frame, it would significantly reduce the weight of cars. Currently it is primarily used for coating applications.

What the Industry is Saying

Ron Reichen, owner of Precision Paint & Body in Oregon, which has nearly two dozen OEM certifications, says he is excited for the possibility of a stronger-than-steel type of aluminum on the market due to the material’s abundance and its recyclability from “cradle to grave.”

Due to CAFE standards, manufacturers have already implemented aluminum parts to lower the weight of the vehicle, since aluminum is a lighter material than steel, and ultimately allow the vehicle to travel faster on less fuel, reducing the amount of fuel needed. However, because of the low ductility, steel is still required, to some extent.

Yet, he has reservations going forward. To determine if this new alloy will make a difference in the industry and be able to replace complete steel body frames, Reichen says he wants to know how much energy this material will be able to absorb in a crash before it breaks, what tooling will be required to repair this material and if it will be classified as cosmetic or structural.

Unfortunately, because the material requires further investment, researchers have not been able to create a significant amount of the alloy or complete shock resistance tests to answer those questions.

Matt Parker, owner of Parker Auto Body in Monroe, La., which works on a significant number of light-duty trucks and holds numerous certifications, says he is excited by the news of the new research because it could have the potential to drastically reduce the weight of all commercial vehicles.

Parker’s concern lies within how fast shops will be able to get certified and trained on aluminum repairs, especially through I-CAR training. He says he has waited since June 2017 when he first put in a request to be certified on aluminum welding through I-CAR and has not had a date set for the training yet.

Parker invested roughly $100,000 in aluminum tools and equipment for his shop to become a recognized shop to repair Ford F-150s and is also concerned the new aluminum equipment will cost a fortune for all shops.

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