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Alcoa hopes new adhesive technology will increase aluminum use in vehicles

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By Timothy Puko
Friday, April 5, 2013, 11:00 a.m.
 

A product developed by Alcoa Inc. researchers in Upper Burrell could help the company take a significant step in its long-standing chase to increase aluminum use by the global auto industry.

The company announced on Friday a distribution deal with German chemical supplier Chemetall GmbH, which will have the right to sell “Alcoa 951,” a pre-treatment that helps aluminum stick to other materials. It will market the product to car and parts manufacturers worldwide, said Alcoa spokesman Kevin G. Lowery in Pittsburgh. He declined to discuss financial terms.

The deal's implications could be far greater than those initial financial terms, too, experts said.

Aluminum companies have long pushed for their metal to replace steel in vehicle manufacturing, but one of their biggest obstacles has been how well their parts stick to the rest of the car. If Alcoa 951 works as well as the company claims, it could be a breakthrough that leads to cars becoming aluminum at their core, the experts said.

“That will make them a lot more money than any licensing fee,” said Mike Southwood, a Wexford-based aluminum consultant for CRU of London.

“The holy grail of the automotive industry for both steel and aluminum is the body in white (the car's core skeleton). They're fighting over this tooth and nail,” said Southwood, who holds shares in Alcoa.

The announcement comes days before Alcoa's earnings report for the first quarter. The company will release its report after the stock market closes on Monday.

Friday's announcement was not related or timed for that news. Lowery said. Alcoa's stock closed up 2 cents to $8.24 per share.

The average vehicle is now about 8 to 9 percent aluminum, a figure the aluminum industry hopes to double by 2025. The drive for better fuel efficiency, now rising to 54.5 mpg by 2025 under a deal with the federal government, has pushed automakers to steadily increase aluminum use since at least the 1970s. They widely use it in hoods, engine blocks and many other parts.

Researchers at the Alcoa Technical Center in Upper Burrell first created Alcoa 951 in the 1990s in part responding to that trend, said Jim Marinelli, who has overseen the product's development there. It worked well from the start, but it has taken years of slow-growing interest from auto parts makers to fund the tests and small-scale applications to prove it could work in wide distribution, he said.

“It was a long time in coming,” said Marinelli, 52, of Murrysville. “We knew someday there would be a place for it. It was just a matter of when. It was a matter of the market catching up with the technology.”

Aluminum does not react well with many other elements. The researchers used some of the few that do to create a clear surface treatment to which other adhesives will stick, Marinelli said. It's nine times more durable than a similar, commonly used product, the company claimed.

That performance led manufacturers to ask Alcoa to push for wide distribution, the company said. Chemetall's position as a go-to source for chemicals will help it make sales and support the product's customers, Marinelli said.

The other big obstacle for aluminum is cost, because it's twice as expensive per pound as steel, said Jay Baron, CEO of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. If the adhesive can guarantee to hold for the life of the car, then that also could allow manufacturers to use cheaper materials and welds, Baron said.

Automakers have been hesitant to give up traditional welding in vehicle assembly, but adhesives are a viable alternative, especially if Alcoa's improvements work, he added.

“It's an enabling technology,” he said. Adhesive “is just a much better way to put a car together if you can afford it.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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