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Aluminum’s Environmental Superiority in Automotive Reaffirmed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Aluminum Offers Smallest Total Carbon Footprint Among Competing Materials

The use of aluminum in new vehicles to boost fuel economy offers the smallest total carbon footprint among competing materials, according to a peer-reviewed Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) report presented today at the 2014 Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress. Researcher Sujit Das, a widely respected expert on product life cycle assessments for the United States Department of Energy, documented the study’s findings.

“Governments and private sectors around the globe are increasingly focused on climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions in the earth’s atmosphere,” said Das. “A proven way to reduce the carbon footprint of vehicles is to further increase the use of lightweight materials such as aluminum alloys in place of heavier, less efficient steels. A full life cycle environmental analysis confirms that, when compared to both traditional and advanced steels in the areas of cumulative energy demand, potential ozone depletion and other likely factors in climate change, aluminum rises to the top as the best choice for the environment.”

The ORNL Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) examined a vehicle’s entire environmental impact from each phase of its life – including upstream sourcing, design, manufacturing and post-consumer disposal – and found aluminum has the smallest total carbon footprint of all competing materials. The conclusion of this newly peer-reviewed study is consistent with an earlier draft of the report, as well as a 2010 comparative life cycle assessment that also concluded aluminum has the smallest carbon footprint of competing materials.

“When it comes to the most sustainable material option for a new generation of cleaner and greener cars and trucks, all roads lead to aluminum,” said Tom Boney, chairman of the Aluminum Association’s Transportation Group (ATG) and vice president and general manager, North America Automotive, Novelis Inc. “This materials evolution under the paint cuts carbon emissions associated with all stages of automobile manufacturing, use and recycling. From saving money on gas, to reducing total carbon emissions, to improving performance and handling, the ongoing transition to aluminum use in autos is good for consumers and the planet.”

Highlights from the ORNL peer-reviewed study include:

  • An aluminum-intensive vehicle can achieve up to a 20 percent* reduction in total life cycle energy consumption and up to a 17 percent* reduction in CO2emissions compared to a typical vehicle on the road today that uses any mix of traditional and high-strength steel in the body construction.
  • More than 90 percent of automobile energy consumption and carbon emissions occurs during the vehicle’s use phase, with the mining, production and manufacturing phases accounting for just 10 percent or less.
  • While a steel vehicle has a lower production phase environmental impact, those initial gains are erased by higher energy use and carbon emissions during the steel vehicle’s use phase.
  • After just 12,000* miles, an aluminum-intensive vehicle will have delivered enough energy savings to make up for the energy consumed during its production. Most automobiles on U.S. roads reach this breakeven point within their first year of operation.

The ORNL study modeled a typical 2012 crossover SUV reflective of the average on-the-road vehicle in the U.S. in terms of weight, performance, fuel economy and materials mix of steel, high-strength steel and aluminum. Building on an earlier crossover SUV study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (Light-Duty Vehicle Mass Reduction and Cost Analysis – Midsize Crossover Utility vehicle, August 2013), ORNL researchers analyzed a baseline SUV (a comprehensive mix of mild and high-strength steel), a lightweight steel vehicle (optimized for maximum use of high-strength and advanced high-strength steel), and a lightweight aluminum-intensive vehicle (including currently available body, doors, trunk and hood applications).

For copy of the paper presented at SAE visit:

*This figure was amended during the peer review process and differs from the initial draft of the ORNL study.

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About Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is a multiprogram science and technology laboratory managed for the U.S Department of Energy’s Office of Science by UT-Battelle,LLC. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

About the Aluminum Association

Through its Aluminum Transportation Group, the Aluminum Association communicates the benefits of aluminum in ground transportation applications to help accelerate its penetration through research programs and related outreach activities. The ATG’s mission is to serve member companies and act as a central resource for the automotive and commercial vehicle industries on aluminum issues. Members of the ATG include: Alcoa Inc., Novelis Inc., Kaiser Aluminum Corporation, Sapa Group, Rio Tinto Alcan, Aluminum Precision Products Inc., Hydro, Aleris and Pennex Aluminum. Visit us online at, and follow us on Twitter@DriveAluminum.

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