Lighter, “greener” automobiles are the target of transportation designers, engineers and manufacturers worldwide, and are helping create a boom in magnesium demand, that metal being the lightest known usable metal material.
Traditionally, magnesium is mined, but the output is unstable and extracting it involves a high-carbon process.
Now, a substantial volume of magnesium alloy manufactured at Qairhan Salt Lake (located in the country’s northwest Qinghai Province), the country’s largest salt flat, will mean expanded opportunities for magnesium alloy applications in the country’s auto manufacturing sector.
A forum centering on lightweight automobiles and green energy, was held recently in Golmud, Qinghai province’s second biggest city (Qairhan Salt Lake is located in the southern part of the Qaidam Basin, one of China's three main inland basins). China leads the world in magnesium production (followed by Russia), and the pursuit of new, sustainable and more environmentally friendly sourcing has led the nation to places like Qairhan Salt Lake, where extraction work began at the end of 2016.
The lake and salt flat are reputed to contain more than 4 billion tons of magnesium.
Compared to extracting magnesium from mines, magnesium extracted from salt lake water "will be more sustainable and stable," said Xie Kangmin, president of Qinghai Salt Lake Industry Company. "The project currently can yield 100,000 tons of magnesium a year, and the capacity will climb to 1 million tons in the future," he said.
"Obtaining one kilogram of magnesium using the traditional method generates 26 kilograms of carbon dioxide, while extracting 1 kilogram of magnesium from salt lake water generates only 6.5 kilograms", said Yu Guoli with the Qinghai Magnesium Corporation, a branch of Qinghai Salt Lake Industry Company.
The rapid development of new energy vehicles (NEVs) in China in recent years has expanded opportunities for magnesium alloy manufacturing.
"If a vehicle is lighter, not only could its energy consumption be reduced,
but its battery can also be used longer," said Lin Yi, a member of the China Automobile Lightweight Technology Innovation Strategic Alliance Expert Committee. "As the lightest usable metal material, magnesium can effectively shield electromagnetism and be easily recycled. And magnesium alloy is the key to making cars lighter. I believe more NEV makers will choose parts made from magnesium alloy in the future," he added.
By reducing a car’s weight by 10 percent, using materials like magnesium, its energy consumption could drop by six to eight percent. Under such circumstances, as China’s largest salt lake and one of the country's main magnesium alloy manufacturing bases, Qairhan Salt Lake will play a more important role in the research and promotion of lightweight automobile development in China.
"It means China's demand for magnesium alloy may reach 350,000 tons in 2020 and exceed one million tons in 2030," said Zhen Zisheng, the technical director at Magontec Asia Company.
Industry insiders estimated that NEVs would account for about 40 percent of autos produced and sold in the country in 2030.
"We are using magnesium alloy components in steering wheels and seats, and will promote their use in other parts of the car," said Guo Qiang, an R&D manager at automaker BYD.
Currently, a Chinese-made auto uses, on average, less than 4.5 kilograms of magnesium, but the figure is expected to reach 15 kilograms in 2020 and 45 kilograms in 2030, according to Zhen Zisheng.
"The magnesium alloy activity at the salt flat is a unique advantage for China's automakers. It may fuel a green revolution of the industry," said Yang Jie, deputy secretary general of the China Auto Lightweight Technology Innovation Strategic Alliance.
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