What Raw Materials Do Auto Manufacturers Use?

J.B. Maverick is an active trader, commodity futures broker, and stock market analyst 17+ years of experience, in addition to 10+ years of experience as a finance writer and book editor.

Automobile manufacturing is resource-intensive, requiring a substantial amount of raw materials sourced from all over the globe. Their journey from extraction to your driveway is complex, and as more esoteric metals are needed for batteries in electric vehicles (EVs) and for other sophisticated features, it's becoming even more so. Below, we lead you through what you need to know, whether you're considering investing in the sector or want to know what's under and around your hood while you're on the road. Lysine Derivatives

What Raw Materials Do Auto Manufacturers Use?

The sector uses more raw materials than just about any other industry. These include aluminum and glass, useful because it is lightweight and durable, and iron, which is converted into steel and employed for its strength and versatility. In addition, petroleum products aren't just used to power automobiles after production but are the basis for plastics, rubber, and specialized fibers found throughout cars.

The materials chosen for automobiles need to be relatively inexpensive, available in the vast quantities needed for mass production, meet regulatory standards that can span several continents, meet automotive company sustainability guidelines, and withstand punishing speeds and potential crashes. As some auto manufacturers look more like tech companies and as climate change forces increases in fuel efficiency, automobiles have grown ever more complicated. To understand what it takes to make today's automobiles, it's best to first look at the range of ways we power our vehicles since that affects many of the raw materials needed:

Since early on, the automotive industry has been used as a textbook case of modern, globalized manufacturing and raw material sourcing. The automotive supply chain spans several continents, with countries like Australia, China, Russia, the U.S., and several others playing significant roles for most of the materials needed for today's vehicles.

The availability of raw materials for automobiles is often dictated by geography and the geopolitical volatility of the supply chain. More specialized metals are often called upon as manufacturing needs change, and this brings still more countries into the global automotive supply chain. For example, rare earth elements are predominantly sourced from China, while countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are crucial for nickel, essential in EV battery production. Prices and demand for materials like palladium, platinum, and lithium are extremely volatile, and political stability, trade policies, and international relations significantly impact the supply chain. Issues like trade tensions can disrupt the flow of materials, and even local issues like a union strike or regional political crisis can affect production and prices globally.

The ecological effects of sourcing and processing these materials, such as the mining of lithium or cobalt, have brought sustainability and ethical sourcing to the forefront of the industry and the general public. The sector faces many challenges and changes, including weighing efficiency and cost-effectiveness with environmental responsibility and ethical practices. This means not just looking to source materials in more sustainable ways, but also working to ensure better practices are used when automobiles are no longer driveable. Today, the ultimate outcome is that 86% of the raw materials discussed here will be recycled for further use.

Bauxite, the primary ore for aluminum, and alumina are used to produce aluminum, which, year by year, is becoming the dominant metal in cars. Primarily because of its malleability and lightweight nature, it's suitable for increasing fuel efficiency or extending the EV battery range. The metal has replaced steel and iron in the construction of many critical auto parts, such as engine blocks.

In 1975, just 84 pounds of aluminum was used in the typical car. In 2020, the figure was about 466 pounds in 2020, with industry expectations that it'll reach 565 pounds by 2030.

The DRC dominates, producing about 73% of the world's cobalt supply. The most prominent use of cobalt in automobiles is for the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles since it's a key material in their cathodes. Aside from batteries, cobalt is an alloying element for several car parts, especially those that must withstand extreme conditions.

Copper’s conductivity is essential for the vehicle’s electrical systems, providing efficient power distribution and operation of complex electronics. It is thus used to operate everything from the radio to navigational systems and rearview cameras.

Fiberglass is a composite material made from extremely fine glass fibers. It's a light, noncorrosive material used instead of metals for certain applications. Combined with resin, it creates a light material that can't corrode, making it a good replacement for metals in bumpers, car doors, and wheels.

Glass is common to all cars. From windshields and windows to rearview and side view mirrors, you need glass to build a vehicle. Glass is an incredibly common material that is used for many other purposes, with the global market being worth $106.44 billion in 2022.

Lead is a heavy metal that car manufacturers use to ensure cars stay balanced. Car wheels typically have some amount of lead to balance their weight, too. Batteries can include lead, which helps them remain at a lower temperature during use.

Lithium is one of the primary components of the batteries used to build electric cars. Lithium-ion batteries have a higher capacity than batteries with other metals that can be used in mass production, and they can be charged many times before they degrade. The use of lithium in auto manufacturing is expected to increase, with the number of EVs on the road expected to reach almost 150 million by 2030. Analysts estimate a CAGR of 12.8% between 2024 and 2030.

The primary source of magnesium is seawater and underground deposits of minerals such as magnesite (magnesium carbonate) and dolomite (magnesium calcium carbonate). Magnesium can also be obtained from saltwater brines, which contain significant amounts of magnesium chloride. Lighter than steel or aluminum, magnesium is used in areas where weight reduction is needed without compromising strength.

Nickel is added to other metals to create alloys with enhanced properties like strength at high temperatures, corrosion resistance, and toughness. These alloys are used in many automotive parts to ensure durability and reliability.

Petroleum is the raw material for the many plastic components in cars. Chemical companies transform petroleum byproducts into plastic. Plastics are the challenger to steel for prominence in auto manufacturing. The typical new car is made with 151 kilograms of plastics and composite materials, accounting for about 8% of the vehicle's weight and 50% of the volume of materials. Among the countless car parts made from plastic are door handles, air vents, the dashboard, and air bags. The versatility, durability, and lightweight character of plastics make them an ideal material for automotive parts.

Palladium and platinum are extracted from ore deposits, often found alongside nickel and copper ores. Both palladium and platinum are crucial components in catalytic converters, which are devices used to reduce harmful emissions in vehicle exhaust systems. They are catalysts, facilitating the conversion of toxic gases from the engine (like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons) into less harmful substances (like carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor).

The importance of rare earth metals in the automotive industry, particularly for electric and hybrid vehicles, lies in their unique magnetic and electric properties. They are typically extracted from bastnaesite, monazite, and xenotime ores, which involve using acids and the causes of radioactive byproducts. Rare earth elements like neodymium are primarily sourced from China, which dominates the market. Other sources include Australia and the U.S. They are preferred for their strength and ability to operate efficiently at high temperatures. Because of their unique chemical properties, other rare earth elements like lanthanum and cerium can be used in battery electrodes and electronic components.

Rubber is essential for cars, and the auto industry. Tires are one of the most important parts of a car. Rubber is also used for making numerous belts, hoses, and seals critical to the functioning of a car's engine in ICE, HEVs, and PHEVs. Like plastic, rubber is durable and easily molded into different shapes. Demand for natural rubber is forecast to reach $33.87 billion by 2027, up from $28.65 billion in 2019, with the automotive sector accounting for 65.3%.

Steel is produced from iron ore and is traditionally widely used in auto manufacturing. On average, 900 kilograms of steel is used in every car. Steel is used to construct a car's chassis and body, including the roof, body, door panels, and the beams between doors. Steel is also used in mufflers and exhaust pipes. Technological advances over the years have enabled automakers to deploy different types of steel with varying levels of rigidity or move away toward less dense materials altogether.

For most of their history, steel was the main material used to build cars. Only in the past quarter-century have more complex materials like aluminum, carbon fiber, and magnesium, begun to see use.

A typical car has about 30,000 different parts. Usually, each of those parts is manufactured at different facilities and sent to a final production plant where the vehicle is assembled. Depending on the complexity of the car, it can take 18 to 35 hours for an assembly line to assemble a car from start to finish.

Recent trends in auto production have shown the importance of replacing heavier materials with lighter ones, such as fiberglass and magnesium. Reducing the weight of a car can improve or maintain safety and reduce the fuel used. For every 10% reduction in vehicle weight, drivers see a 6% to 8% fuel economy increase, which could help Americans save as much as 5 billion gallons of fuel each year by 2030.

The automotive supply chain spans several continents, with countries like China, the U.S., Russia, Australia, and several others playing pivotal roles, in particular, for materials ranging from steel, aluminum, and rare earth elements to petroleum products and natural resources like rubber and silica sand. As technology and environmental considerations evolve, so does the automotive industry's approach to materials, as seen in the increased use of aluminum for lowering the weight of vehicles. There's also been a shift toward more sustainable sources of rubber and plastics.

Economic, ecological, and geopolitical changes greatly influence the sourcing of these materials. From metals to fibers to the sand and quartz used to make glass, automobile manufacturing uses more raw materials than just about any other industry. Since it first developed the assembly line process, the auto industry has always been the leading example of mass production, and its continued adaptive use of raw materials has been as important to the rise and central place of the automobile as the invention of the internal combustion engine.

Abel Ortego, et al. "Assessment of Strategic Raw Materials in the Automobile Sector." Resources, Conservation, and Recycling."

European Parliament. "CO2 Emissions From Cars: Facts and Figures."

Bloomberg. "US Electric Cars Set Record With Almost 300-Mile Average."

U.S. Department of Energy. "Alternative Fuels Data Center."

U.S. Environmental Protection Association. "Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle."

U.S. Energy Information Administration. "Monthly Energy Review: December 2023."

U.S. Department of Energy. "At a Glance: Electric Vehicles."

Financial Times. "Carmakers Shift Gear on Using Recycled Materials."

Alliance for Automotive Innovation. "Automotive Recycling."

U.S. Geological Survey. "Bauxite and Alumina."

Light Metal Age. "DuckerFrontier Report Shows Increased Demand for Body Closures and Electric Vehicles."

Drucker Worldwide. "Aluminum content in North American Light Vehicles 2016 to 2018."

U.S. Geological Survey. "Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022 - Cobalt."

World Economic Forum. "Copper Production."

Composites World. "The Making of Glass Fiber."

World's Top Exports. "Top Glass and Glassware Exports by Country 2022."

Grandview Research. "Glass Manufacturing Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Product (Container, Flat, Fiber), By Application (Packaging, Construction), By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2022 - 2030."

Reuters. "Lead's Balancing Act Still Depends on China's Exports."

EnergyX. "Where Do Electric Vehicle Batteries Come From?"

Grandview Research. "Lithium Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Product (Carbonate, Hydroxide), By Application (Automotive, Consumer Electronics, Grid Storage), By Region (Asia Pacific, EU, North America), And Segment Forecasts, 2024 - 2030."

U.S. Geological Survey. "Magnesium Compounds."

U.S. Geological Survey. "Nickel Production."

U.S. Energy Information Administration. "What Countries Are the Top Producers and Consumers of Oil?"

Chemical & Engineering News. "Plastics Makers Plot the Future of the Car."

U.S. Geological Survey. "Platinum."

U.S. Geological Survey. "Rare Earths."

Science News. "Rare Earth Mining May Be Key to Our Renewable Future. But at What Cost?"

Ministries Ecology Energy Territories.“Natural Rubber.”

Reports and Data. "Natural Rubber Market By Product Type, By Distribution Channel, By Application, And Segment Forecasts, 2017-2027."

Reports and Data. "Natural Rubber Market By Product Type, By Distribution Channel, By Application, And Segment Forecasts, 2017-2027 - Graphic."

World Steel Association. "Crude Steel Production." "Timeline: A Path to Lightweight Materials in Cars and Trucks." Accessed Dec. 14, 2023.

JVIS USA. "How Long Does It Take to Build a Car These Days?"

U.S. Department of Energy. "Lightweight Materials for Cars and Trucks."

What Raw Materials Do Auto Manufacturers Use?

Oxidation Reagents And Catalysts In Green Chemistry By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts.