Mr. Green Car: Life cycle assessment of vehicle manufacturing

By Allen Penticoff
Freelance Writer

The title of this piece sounds pretty dry to begin with—like something an engineering student would write. And it’s not far from it. It is a subject that has not been studied in great depth yet, but there are reports beginning to surface that have surprising results. Stories that find that from digging up the minerals to recycling the vehicle at the end of its life, hybrid cars are “dirtier” to build than are conventional cars.

Think about what it takes to manufacture a vehicle. Old Henry Ford certainly did. The pioneer in mass production of automobiles built his company to be “vertically integrated.” That is, Ford mined the iron ore, made the steel, grew the rubber trees for the tires and put it all together in Michigan.

Now, we are looking at this vertical integration in all that we do in studies called “life cycle assessment.” The catch is deciding where to stop looking for connections—for in a metaphysical way, everything is connected.

Do you count the carbon footprint of the hamburger that the dump truck driver at the mine ate? The deeper you look, the more you realize carbon and carbon dioxide from energy sources are at the root of nearly everything.

Let’s just take a look at steel. It starts out as ore mined in huge open pits. Big, energy-hungry equipment gouges it from the earth and transports it to crushing equipment that sorts the ore from other rock.

It is then transported by rail and ship to where it is melted in energy-intensive ovens and mixed with other minerals (that were mined as well) to determine the strength of the steel to become ingots.

These will be transported or used elsewhere on the site of the steel mill, being re-heated, rolled or hammered into new shapes. Let’s say it comes out the end to become a roll of sheet metal. These will be loaded on a truck and taken to the body panel plant.

At the body panel plant, more big machinery stamps out the body parts in big, steel-molding dies. The parts will be collected until the shipment heads out once again on a truck to the assembly plant. At the assembly plant, parts made all over the world arrive to be welded, painted, assembled and finished. A lot of work, a lot of energy goes into this production process.

Some of the steel, perhaps a lot of it, has been made from recycled steel—a material that lends itself well to being recycled repeatedly. The problem is that our recycled steel is gathered by trucks, taken to a local yard for collection, put on trains, shipped to the West Coast, put on a boat and taken to China for processing.

Then, it comes back to us from them in the form of steel. I don’t have the numbers, but in the end, the recycled steel may have about the same carbon footprint as virgin steel made from ore mined in Minnesota.

In a surprising Internet find, I bumped into a group of 17 steel processors, WorldAutoSteel (the automotive group of the World Steel Association), that claim to be concerned with the impact of their industry on the environment—and well they should be—they are major polluters. From their website:

“WorldAutoSteel’s mission is to advance and communicate steel’s unique ability to meet the automotive industry’s needs and challenges in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way.

“WorldAutoSteel is committed to a low carbon future, the principles of which are embedded in our continuous research, manufacturing processes, and ultimately, in advanced automotive steel products, for the benefit of society and future generations.”

This mission statement is followed by a list of member steel producers (boldface added).

“Members of WorldAutoSteel are: Anshan Iron and Steel Group Corporation—China; POSCO—South Korea; Arcelor Mittal—Luxembourg; SeverStal—Russia/USA; Baosham Iron & Steel Co. Ltd.—China; Sumitomo Metal Industries, Ltd.—Japan; China Steel Corporation—Taiwan, China; Tata Steel & Corus—India, U.K., Netherlands; Hyundai-Steel Company—South Korea; ThyssenKrupp Steel Europe AG—Germany; JFE Steel Corporation—Japan; United States Steel Corporation—USA; Kobe Steel, Ltd.—Japan; Usinas Siderúrgicas de Minas Gerais S.A.—Brazil; Nippon Steel Corporation—Japan; voestalpine Stahl GmbH—Austria; Nucor Corporation—USA.”

That’s an impressive list and an impressive mission statement—as long as they really mean it, and it is not just “green washing.”

While there is plenty of room for improvement in the environmental impact of making steel or manufacturing a car, there is no getting around the fact that not making the stuff at all is the best thing for the environment.

It would be all well and good if we could just keep our old, hopefully fuel-efficient cars going forever. But the downside of such frugality is that the world’s economy depends largely on the manufacturing of automobiles and trucks…and it is a dirty business that is not likely to stop any time soon just to save the planet from climate change.

From the April 6-12, 2011 issue

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