The Multiple Roads that Lead to Electromobility
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The Multiple Roads that Lead to Electromobility

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Sofía Garduño By Sofía Garduño | Journalist & Industry Analyst - Wed, 03/15/2023 - 13:28

For decades, the automotive industry has favored steel and metal alloys in the manufacture of vehicles due to their favorable performance and low cost. However, modern vehicles demand advanced materials to improve the fuel efficiency, while still maintaining safety, performance and affordability. EVs also need lighter materials, such as magnesium and aluminum alloys and high-performance polymers, among others.

“The EV trend will continue and we will have to participate and understand how we are part of it,” says Martin Toscano, CEO, Evonik. To meet the demand for lighter materials, the automotive industry is even adapting products from the aerospace industry, adds Toscano. 

Lightweight materials have the potential to increase vehicle efficiency significantly since lighter objects require less energy to accelerate than heavier ones. The US Office of Energy and Renewable Energy (EERE) reports that a 10% reduction in vehicle weight can result in a 6-8% improvement in fuel economy. Replacing traditional steel components and cast iron with lightweight materials like high-strength steel, magnesium alloys, aluminum alloys, carbon fiber and polymer composites can reduce the weight of a vehicle's body and chassis by up to 50%, directly reducing fuel consumption.

An average vehicle is composed of 65% steel, 13% aluminum, 4% magnesium, 6% plastic and polymer composites and a variable percentage of glass, adhesives, sealers and foam, as reported by MBN. The chemical industry plays a crucial role in addressing the challenges faced by companies transitioning to electromobility. From battery recycling to microchip manufacturing, this industry is involved in many aspects of this transformation.

Innovation is boosting the transition toward lightweighting and electromobility. “All the players in the industry are moving toward the same main objectives: safety and efficiency,” says Renato Villaseñor, President and Executive Director, Queretaro’s Automotive Cluster. 

Specialty chemicals play an essential role in the development of the advanced materials used in vehicle manufacturing, particularly in the area of lightweighting. These chemicals are used in the formulation and processing of lightweight materials such as aluminum alloys, carbon fiber and polymer composites, which are increasingly used to replace heavier traditional materials like steel.

Through their unique properties, specialty chemicals enable the creation of materials with superior strength, durability and weight-saving capabilities, resulting in lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicles that meet stringent safety standards. As such, they are essential in driving the automotive industry toward more sustainable and environmentally-friendly transportation solutions. “Addressing pollution, affordability and a second life for batteries will be key for the success of the EV industry,” says Ramón Mariscal, President Mexico and Latam, DuPont. 

Battery recycling is one key for the automotive industry as it is essential for sustainability. Without proper battery recycling, the environmental benefits brought about by EVs would be reduced. EV batteries have been linked to negative environmental effects. Although lithium is not toxic by itself, lithium-ion batteries contain cobalt, nickel and manganese, which are considered toxic heavy metals. Mining and refining the raw materials needed for a vehicle create a high amount of greenhouse gasses. Moreover, CO2 emissions linked to materials and EV assembly are higher than those of a traditional car, according to Harvard.

Coatings also play a crucial role in vehicle material technology and lightweighting. They are used to improve the durability and corrosion resistance of lightweight materials like aluminum and magnesium alloys. Coatings can also be used to reduce friction, improve aerodynamics and enhance the appearance of vehicles. 

Furthermore, specialized coatings can provide additional properties such as thermal insulation, electrical conductivity and anti-static properties. “One of the most critical processes we have to consider is insulation. It is key to making safer batteries,” says Mariscal. Coatings are crucial in achieving the desired performance, safety and environmental objectives of modern vehicles, while still maintaining their aesthetic appeal. 

Although automakers continue exploring and developing alternative materials, copper will remain essential. The demand for this material is expected to double in the coming years, explains Markus Shcueler, Senior Director Sales and Marketing, Wieland Rolled Products. Industry players have to be prepared for this upcoming scenario. “Mining and refining capacities must be addressed. Significant spikes of demand cannot be accommodated overnight; we have to plan today for the demand of tomorrow,” said Shcueler.

Copper and copper alloys are increasingly being used in the manufacturing of EVs due to their excellent electrical conductivity and thermal properties. Copper plays a critical role in the production of key components in EVs such as electric motors, batteries and charging infrastructure. It is also used in wiring and electrical connectors thanks to its superior conductivity, durability and resistance to corrosion. Additionally, copper alloys are used in various structural components of vehicles due to their strength, ductility and resistance to fatigue. The use of copper and copper alloys in EVs is expected to grow as the demand for electromobility continues to increase, reinforcing its significance in modern vehicle manufacturing.

While innovation across fields is boosting the electromobility transition, there are still challenges ahead that need to be addressed, requiring engagement with local authorities. The sector also needs to work towards standardization and pursue sustainability at all levels of the supply chain to allow Mexico to become a leader in electromobility. 

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