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Nippon Steel crashes car after car digitally for ideal EV material

As aluminum gains, Japanese steelmaker hunts for something lighter and stronger

A Mitsubishi Motors electric car seen after a crash test in Switzerland. A single crash test vehicle can cost millions of dollars to produce.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- At one of Nippon Steel's research laboratories, technicians spend their days slamming countless electric vehicles and hybrids into walls and other obstacles.

"Look at what happens to the center pillar," one lab tech says, analyzing the impact.

Despite the endless tests, there is no screech from twisted metal to be heard, no violent reverberations to be felt. This is because all the crashes take place within a virtual environment.

As the EV industry expands, so does the competition to find lighter materials that are also tough and resilient. As lighter materials such as aluminum, become more popular with automakers, steelmakers come under ever more pressure. Not only do these virtual tests unlock solutions to making car bodies lighter without losing strength, they are a cost-saving measure since conventional crash tests can set an automaker back millions of dollars, when including the cost of creating a specially manufactured car.

Nippon Steel's Steel Research Laboratories uses the virtual space to analyze the effects of collisions by breaking down the car body into pieces measuring just a few sq. millimeters. Altogether, one passenger vehicle can be broken down into anywhere from a few million to 10 million elements to observe.

Nippon Steel's proprietary algorithm can measure the strain caused by the collision depending on the material and the type of steel used. The program can also gauge the force inflicted within the auto component to judge the risk of fractures as well as the rigidity.

The algorithm determines how hard the material needs to be pulled to break or how far it can bend before it cracks. The application is based on hundreds of terabytes of steel data that Nippon Steel has gleaned over many years.

The results of the virtual experiments are shown to automakers using 3D imagery so they can modify designs. Technology to visualize deformations has been in use since last year. This innovation allows analysts to spot an area that is prone to breakage with a single glance.

Nippon Steel has engaged in virtual crash tests since the early 2000s. At first, the company was not able to achieve much precision due to the limited processing speeds of computers. Back then, virtual tests could only observe the effects of crashes in less than 10,000 elements.

"The cycle of design, prototype, evaluation and redesign has sped up considerably," said Toshiyuki Niwa, chief researcher at Steel Research Laboratories.

Automakers also engage in virtual crash tests. However, "I would argue that a steelmaker is better able to predict ruptures in steel sheets because of the proprietary material data in hand," Niwa said.

Nippon Steel will use its data to respond to the increasingly competitive environment in the materials industry brought about by the EV era. Starting this year, the company is actively lobbying automakers around the world to participate in joint tests.

For steelmakers, steel sheets for the auto industry is the mainstay business. Nearly 20% of common steel went to vehicles last year, according to the Japan Iron and Steel Federation, making it the top destination. In the sector of specialized steel, that share jumps to nearly 40%.

At the same time, cars are evolving. Steel will only account for 46% of the auto body material in 2040, the U.S. nonprofit Center for Automotive Research predicts, down from 65% in 2020. Not only is Tesla adopting aluminum, plastics and carbon fibers have emerged as alternatives to steel as well.

To compensate for heavy EV batteries, electric vehicle makers have to rely on lighter materials to extend driving range.

Nippon Steel will use the virtual crash test data to develop steel that can compete against aluminum. Ultra high-tensile strength steel sheets are a possible candidate.

The product is nearly three times as strong as mainline products developed in the 1990s. But high-strength steel needs to be combined with softer material, so its applications to vehicles are limited.

Using the crash test data, Nippon Steel will analyze and modify the compounds used in the steel to produce a product that is both lightweight and easy to process. The company looks to present design improvements to expand the adoption of ultra high-strength steel.

"Together with automakers, we'll dispel concerns about ruptures, warping and rigidity," said Niwa.

In March, Nippon Steel said it will start a new hot-rolled steel production line in Japan in fiscal 2026, marking the first such launch in three decades.

"We will manufacture a steady supply of advanced ultra high-strength steel," said Nippon Steel President Eiji Hashimoto.

Nippon Steel is cutting the number of Japanese blast furnaces to 10 from 14 due to declining domestic demand and price competition from China. The company also raised prices recently on steel sheets sold to Toyota Motor. These developments underscore the strategy based primarily on high-added value steel.

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