SEOUL (Reuters) - A collapse in steel demand from the ailing auto sector may be foremost on steelmakers' minds at the moment, but rising government fuel standards are the greater cause for alarm as aluminum and magnesium steal market share.
While the auto industry consumes only about 6 percent of the world's crude steel production, mills have long counted on steady growth in car sales to generate new business -- growth that may now be in doubt as aluminum and other super-light materials replace steel to help meet tougher environmental regulations.
The threat became more apparent this week as U.S. President Barack Obama introduced the most aggressive proposal yet to boost U.S. auto fuel economy standards, which would encourage automakers to invest in fuel-saving technology.
Under the new standards, U.S. passenger vehicles and light trucks must raise fuel efficiency by 5 percent yearly to an average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. The current law requires a similar gain by 2020.
"To achieve weight-saving and improve fuel efficiency, it's inevitable to replace steel to lighter materials, as steel accounts for around 50-60 percent of total vehicle weight," said Han Do-suck, principal researcher of South Korea's Hyundai Motor's (005380.KS) materials research team.
"We are open to all possibilities and new technologies but any dramatic and immediate change is unlikely, mainly because of cost issues."
The incentives are clear: fuel efficiency usually rises by 5-10 percent for every 10 percent reduction in vehicle weight, and per-vehicle steel consumption is well over 1 tonne.
That can be a big blow to already reeling steelmakers, such as Nippon Steel (5401.T), POSCO (005490.KS) and AK Steel (AKS.N), which count auto firms as a major client and face reduced demand as auto output falls by as much as 20 percent this year.
Already automakers are increasingly stripping off sheets of steel in favor of lighter and more stylish materials, such as aluminum, magnesium, titanium, plastics and carbon fiber.
The Mazda2 subcompact, for example, reduced weight by almost 100 kg from its predecessor by using lightweight and thinner ultra-tensile steel, altering the electrics, suspension and exhaust, and even by changing door speakers to save weight.
Aluminum LEADS, COST STILL CONCERN
The substitution has been led by aluminum, which can halve weight of vehicle body frames, thus dramatically reducing emissions of carbon dioxide blamed for global warming.
A survey by research firm Ducker Worldwide showed that per-vehicle aluminum content in North America would rise to 376 pounds by 2020, or 10.4 percent of total vehicle weight, from an estimated 8.6 percent this year.
Aluminum, which is as stiff as steel but weighs one third as much, has been developed for around two decades for use in autos but its high price and relatively complicated processing structure have prevented its use for the whole auto-body frame.
"Aluminum is some three to four times more expensive than steel per volume, and as a relatively less standardized and commoditized processing tool it costs a lot more to process the metal for auto use," said Kim Hyung-wook, a chief researcher at Korea Institute of Materials Science.