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Steelmaking by night: TSE’s Hlsarna plant in the Netherlands is leading efforts toward carbon neutrality. (Tata Steel Europe)

Tata Steel Europe innovates to retain the automotive materials lead

Steel’s infinite recyclability will help it remain the auto industry’s material of choice, says TSE’s CCO.

In the constantly evolving world of automaking, Dr. Karl Haider, Chief Commercial Officer of Tata Steel Europe (TSE) is certain of one thing: that steel will continue to be the industry’s material of choice. In an exclusive interview, he told SAE International: “It will remain so for the next 20 years and beyond. A major reason for that high degree of success is its infinite recyclability. I believe steel is not just one of the best, but the best automotive material for car manufacture because it can be recycled again and again. And our R&D programs ensure that it is continually improving.”

Speaking at TSE’s HQ (in IJmuiden, the Netherlands), Haider said that despite the global focus on sustainability, society in general will continue to want new vehicles without exploiting earth’s natural resources. “Both society and the auto industry will want a ‘circular’ economy, with high levels of recycled material being used,” he said. “We are planning for this. For example, the science is in place to produce steel in different ways; in TSE we can apply multiple technologies for our industry to become carbon neutral.” 

An example is the company’s HIsarna technology, he said, designed and developed as a consortium project at TSE’s IJmuiden facility located at the mouth of the North Sea Canal to Amsterdam. (It also has a steel-making site in the U.K.) Haider terms Hlsarna a “game changer,” facilitating future steel production with “far lower” CO2 emissions. 

HIsarna is a substitute for the blast-furnace process. To make liquid iron in a blast furnace, iron ore and metallurgical coal are pre-processed into sinter (lumps of iron ore), pellets (small balls of iron ore) and cokes. But with the HIsarna process, the raw materials are injected as powders, directly converting them into liquid iron. Use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) or carbon capture and use (CCU) disciplines leads up to a “nearly zero” carbon footprint, he stated.  

White bodies and e-motors
The HIsarna plant produces liquid iron to be processed into steel for high-end automotive application. “Internationally, the big aim for carbon neutrality is to achieve it by 2050,” Haider said. “In my view, that is too late. With a combination of technologies, including the Hlsana process, we can take a large step already. Industry needs to act earlier.” 

He regards 2030-35 to be the appropriate timescale to have made significant progress. Even if TSE will not be completely carbon-neutral at that stage, the company is determined to take the lead against competitors vying for similar sustainability benchmarks; TSE hopes to achieve a 30-40% reduction in carbon emissions within 10 years.

Haider lists electrification, digitalization and sustainability as TSEs overall tria in juncta uno supporting its future plans in which the auto industry takes some 25% of its output. “We aim to go lightweight with highly advanced steels offering OEMs value in application engineering. And our steel is not just for BIW (body-in-white) structures. We have a role in electric motors with our ultra-thin (non-grain oriented) Hi-Lite electrical steel.” 

Produced at TSE’s plant in Surahammar, Sweden, Hi-Lite has been designed to both save weight and to minimize magnetic losses. The company’s detailed description of Hi-Lite states that non-oriented electrical steels between 0.10 mm and 1.00 mm thick are critical in the manufacturing of rotating machines of all sizes and a variety of other electromagnetic applications. “Their magnetic properties are combined with tailored insulation coatings which offer the best performance required for the manufacturing process and final application. The final annealing refines magnetic properties after which the bespoke insulation coating is applied,” Haider explained.

Regarding EVs, Haider said that steels with tensile strengths of 1000 megapascals or higher are used to provide energy absorption and minimal penetration into the battery-protection structures to safeguard against crash damage. The increasing focus within the auto industry of high-level automated vehicles of various cabin configurations will require lightweight high-end steels with different crash-absorbing paths. This would require 1000-MPa steel or another type, but with generally lower thickness and higher formability to ensure light weight and a good structural integrity. 

PVD progress 
In terms of body-structure longevity, the theoretical life expectancy of a high-volume 2020 vehicle now is based more on mechanical replacement cost-effective ratios than structural corrosion. This is partly down to greatly improved galvanizing, its use and effectiveness increasing in the auto industry from the process’s first high-volume introduction in the 1970s-1980s to today’s highly protected vehicles.

Further advances are in prospect. With partners, including South Korean steel company POSCO, TSE is working towards the use of physical vapor deposition (PVD) coating technology in which metallic coating is vaporized  and condenses onto the steel substrate. For this new process, TSE’s development is centered on a laboratory in the Netherlands. The technique could make a further significant contribution to vehicle life, although large-scale production is not scheduled before 2025.

Haider stressed the need for such programs to ensure the steel industry maintains its focus on the future and continues to anticipate the auto industry’s needs.  . Was there a lack of that focus 20 years ago? “Maybe. The steel industry’s nose was perhaps a little too high!” he admitted. “But in recent years that has changed completely. If we are not working in a tailored way with the OEMs, we will not be successful; the R&D engineering know-how is essential – to understand exactly what engineers want from a materials’ science aspect. We can guide them. And in the future we will need to develop new chemistries and new temperature profiles in our process lines to match their needs for materials with high strength and excellent formability.”

TSE's future strategy certainly includes digitalization within the auto industry’s value chain, allowing for material traceability and quality tracking to ensure more efficient processing and continuous adaption to customer-specific demands. The company expects a still faster time to market for new products that are better-tailored to customer needs to enhance quality and lower total cost of ownership (TCO). The company uses a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) service to help customers understand their own carbon footprint. 

Steel-polymer honeycomb 
Asked what TSE’s is doing to further steel’s role in many OEMs’ expanding mixed-materials strategies – and of new joining technologies that enable disparate materials to be glued, screwed or otherwise fused together – Haider said: “We have a very open-minded R&D department. They are always looking at processing, at welding – and gluing. For example, we have invested in technology combining galvanized steel sheet with a polymer honeycomb.” 

Called Coretinium, the hybrid sheet has been used for commercial-vehicle trailers. Haider said the result is a very stiff solution with potential for further applications, particularly in light commercial vehicles. TSE’s description of Coretinium describes its interlayer adhesion as delivering “levels up to twice those of other composites, ensuring it maintains its composite rigidity even in demanding load situations.” Also, the resultant smooth cell structure and optimised cell geometry help avoid surface dimpling (the golf-ball effect) common with most thin-skinned honeycomb composites. This core then is combined with steel skins in a continuous-coil-fed lamination process. 

All this supports Haider’s belief that steel will remain the most preferred material for the auto industry into the future. He summed up TSE’s stated aims as pioneering the next generation of steel products for automakers, to further lightweight products and reduce overall emissions, while planning what he terms the creation of “the steel plant of the future.” 

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