Reinvention of Steel Could Make Car Bodies 30-Percent Lighter

Imagine the weight of 24 elephants bearing down on a tiny spot the size a postage stamp. That’s how much pressure Nippon Steel Corp.’s strongest metal can withstand. The Japanese company is pushing the envelope in order to stay relevant as the auto industry, its most important customer, goes through major changes.

Steel has been the main material in cars since Henry Ford started mass producing them a century ago. But the heavy metal is falling out of favor because automakers can’t meet new fuel efficiency standards or build long-range battery-powered cars without shedding precious pounds. Several years ago, Ford Motor Co. decided to build its best-selling F-150 pickup truck mostly out of aluminum — and steelmakers have been panicking ever since.

That’s why Nippon Steel last April opened a research department to come up with tricks for making car parts lighter, using super-advanced grades of the material it’s been smelting for 118 years. In January, the firm unveiled the results of the new approach: an all-steel car body, built in-house, which it says cuts weight by 30 percent, putting it on par with aluminum.

“There’s this idea out there that steel is an old-fashioned material, but it’s not true,” Nippon Steel’s laboratory research head, Nobuhiro Fujita, said last week at a briefing in Yokohama.

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