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Posted on June 20, 2011

There’s a Great Future in . . . Steel

A self-taught metallurgist from Detroit may hold the key to a breakthrough in vehicle fuel efficiency with his invention of a remarkable new kind of steel—lighter and stronger than any previously fabricated.

According to a news release from the University of Ohio, where the new steel has been tested and analyzed, inventor Gary Cola’s novel heat treatment “makes steel 7 percent stronger than any steel on record—in less than 10 seconds. In fact, the steel, now trademarked as Flash Bainite, has tested stronger and more shock-absorbing than the most common titanium alloys used by industry.”

Flash Bainite is also, pound for pound, said to be twice as strong as the best aluminum alloys. Also attractive is the fact that the flash heating process takes relatively little energy and uses water rather than polluting oils for cooling.

Bottom line—manufacturers of cars and other vehicles (including those for militiary applications) may be able to slash their weight by 30 percent without sacrificing any strength.

Why does all this matter? Weight is one of the biggest enemies of fuel economy. Since the 1980s, the average new car weight has grown 29 percent, offsetting many of the benefits of improved engine designs. No wonder that of EPA’s list of the top 10 most fuel efficient cars, six were models built before 2000!

With growing consumer unease over rising gas prices, greenhouse-gas pollution and dependence on imported oil, automakers are getting the message about “lightweighting” their vehicles. Early this year, Ford Vice President Barb Samardzich said, “the real enabler [for lower fuel consumption] you are going to see coming in the future is weight reduction.”

Citing U.S. Department of Energy estimates, Lotus Engineering claims that reducing a vehicle’s mass by 33 percent will draw down its fuel consumption by 23 percent, a huge saving.

A new study by BCC Research predicts that the global market for lightweight materials used in transportation will soar 31 percent to $125 billion in 2015.To capture as much of that market as it can, the steel industry has been working for years on its Ultra Light Steel Auto Body program. If the new claims for Flash Bainite hold up, steel will indeed remain an essential part of vehicle bodies for years to come.

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