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Raw Materials and Sustainability in an Automotive World

Car interiors are looking very stylish with many colours available, many textures and, of course, technologies.  Even the exterior and structure of new cars utilise some pretty sensational materials that are lightweight, strong and malleable.  So what are the main raw materials that make up the structure, style and flair that we love in our vehicles?

Inside each new car are different materials that require a number of raw materials for their production.  Aluminium, glass, coking coal, and iron ore are used in the process of making steel.  Kia and Mazda use very high-grade, high-strength steel in the production of their cars.  Mazda even states that they use very thin and strong steel.  There is a cost, though; the more high-grade, lightweight and high-strength the steel, the costlier it is to produce.  High-strength steel alloys cost more to manufacture.  Not only is the high-grade alloy harder to create in its raw form; it is also harder to work with.  Stamping it and forming it becomes harder, and so more energy and stronger tools are needed to press, form and cut it.

The automotive industry also relies on oil and petroleum products, not just for the gasoline and fuel to power the vehicles, but for the synthesis of plastics and in the production of other synthetic materials.  Petroleum products are needed to make huge amounts of plastics, rubber and special fibres.  After the raw materials are extracted from the earth, they are transformed into products that automakers or auto parts companies use in the car assembly process.

But wait; there is more – but only if you are into driving an electric vehicle (EV).  An EV is made up of all the raw materials described above, as the only thing that’s different about an EV from a vehicle that is powered by a combustion engine is that an EV uses a battery pack to get its power.  In every EV battery, there’s a complex chemistry of metals – cobalt, lithium, nickel and more.  These are all raw materials that need to be mined from somewhere around the globe.  Some researchers are expecting to see double-digit growth for batteries’ special raw materials over the next decade, and this sort of growth will increase the pressure on the raw material supply chain for EVs.

Hydrogen vehicles are powered by hydrogen.  The power plants of such vehicles convert the chemical energy of hydrogen into mechanical energy by either burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, or by reacting hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell to power electric motors.  The fuel cell is more common.  A hydrogen powered vehicle is made up of the same core raw materials as the contemporary combustion powered cars and the EVs; however, like the EV, the hydrogen vehicle gets it power from a different source (hydrogen).  As of 2019, 98% of the hydrogen was produced by steam methane reforming, and this emits carbon dioxide.  Hydrogen can be produced by thermochemical or pyrolytic means using renewable feedstocks, but the processes are currently expensive.  So, you can run a hydrogen vehicle with an internal combustion engine that uses hydrogen as the fuel.  However, you can also run a hydrogen vehicle that uses a hydrogen fuel cell.  The hydrogen fuel cell is more complex, relying on special raw materials (one raw material being platinum as a catalyst) to deliver the hydrogen for powering the vehicle.

Biofuel is another fuel which can be used for powering combustion engine vehicles.  Biofuel can be produced sustainably from renewable resources.  The hitch with this one is ensuring there are large enough areas and methods dedicated to growing and producing biofuel for the masses.  Biofuel is considered to be a fuel that is derived from biomass, which can be from plant or algae material or animal waste. Since such plant, algae or animal waste material can be replenished readily, biofuel is considered to be a source of renewable energy, unlike fossil fuels such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas and even EVs.

Without a doubt, the automobile industry is one of the largest consumers of the world’s raw materials, and it’s important we get informed as to just how green a heralded new technology is said to be.  Science and sustainability need to continue to power our much needed vehicles about the globe and not fossil fuel giants, electric companies or blinded government bureaucrats.

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