As the doors closed on the 2014 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, auto manufacturers from around the world had again showcased the latest innovations in cars and trucks. During the two days of press previews that preceded the show, organizers counted 50 new vehicle introductions presented to journalists. Among the vehicles on display at the show, were Ford’s new F150, with its breakthrough aluminum body, the race-inspired Cadillac ATS Coup and the Nissan Autonomous Leaf.

Issues of sustainability have become a repeat theme for this show, as automotive companies work to design vehicles that adhere to new, stricter corporate average fuel economy (CAFÉ) regulations and also meet consumer demand for more sustainably manufactured and fuel-efficient cars. New automotive coatings and automotive finishing technology are among the innovations that car manufacturers look to as they design more sustainable products.

One of the vehicles that received a lot of buzz at the show was the new Ford F150 with its aluminum body. The decision to move to aluminum body panels shaves 700 pounds off the weight of the vehicle, which contributes to better gas mileage.

Among the companies that provide aluminum for cars is Alcoa, an innovation leader in lightweight metals, products and solutions. In January of this year, the company announced the completion of a $300 million expansion at its Davenport, IA, facility that is dedicated to supplying aluminum sheet products to the automotive industry. At an announcement made at NAIAS, Alcoa executives noted that, according to automakers, demand for aluminum to produce vehicles, already the second-most-used material to make cars today, is expected to nearly double by 2015. The amount of aluminum body sheet content in North American vehicles is expected to quadruple by 2015 and increase tenfold by 2025 from 2012 levels.

Alcoa innovations are enabling the increased use of aluminum in the automotive sector. Alcoa’s pre-treatment bonding technology, known as Alcoa 951, allows for more durable bonding of aluminum components in vehicles, can reduce spot weld points and results in lower manufacturing costs.

In April 2013, the company announced that its Alcoa 951 pre-treatment bonding technology, an enabler for adhesive bonding of automotive structures, had been licensed to Chemetall in an exclusive global distribution agreement. The Alcoa technology is the new pre-treatment bonding standard for aluminum sheet, extrusion and casting suppliers across the automotive industry. Chemetall is a leading supplier of surface treatments to the automotive industry, globally. In customer trials, Alcoa 951 has been proven to be up to nine times more durable than titanium zirconium applications used in the automotive industry in the past.

Alcoa 951 employs an organic, environmentally friendly system tailored for both the aluminum substrate and the structural adhesives used for joining. The pre-treatment delivers a superior bond durability compared to conversion coating systems such as the titanium zirconium often used in the past.

The surface treatment is applied through an immersion or spray application in which the organic components bond with oxides present on the metal surface. The molecular structure chemically binds aluminum oxide with one end and adhesive with the other. This creates a strong link at the molecular level resulting in lasting, durable joints for automotive structures.

The minimal level of treatment on the surface makes it essentially “transparent” to downstream steps in the automotive manufacturing process such as forming, resistance spot welding and painting.

Other commercially available conversion coatings, which generally contain heavy metals and are measurably thicker, lead to potential environmental concerns and diminished performance in other steps in the manufacturing process. The attractiveness of Alcoa 951 lies in its repeatability and its simplicity. It does not incorporate exotic components that threaten the ability to implement the product on a large scale, and it brings the type of benign environmental impact that addresses the need for the “cradle-to-cradle” life cycle required for aluminum.

Another supplier to the automotive market, PPG Industries, was on hand at NAIAS to show automotive manufacturers how the company can help with sustainability goals. At a news conference, PPG showcased environmentally sustainable coatings and specialty materials for the automotive industry. The company’s products are used by automakers and automotive suppliers to enhance manufacturing efficiencies, reduce energy consumption and improve fuel efficiency.

 “For automakers, PPG offers more than the brilliance and shine our coatings are known for bringing to the exteriors of automobiles,” said Cindy Niekamp, PPG Senior Vice President, Automotive Coatings. “Our products help manufacturers reduce energy and water consumption during the production process and decrease the waste produced. Many PPG products help make vehicles lighter or improve the rolling resistance of tires, enabling automakers and suppliers to produce the fuel-efficient vehicles that today’s consumers demand.”

The company highlighted ZIRCOBOND® pretreatment, a “green,” corrosion-effective pretreatment that reduces water use and waste and increases energy efficiency. The pretreatment can save the average North American assembly plant 16 million gallons of water per year – the equivalent of 380,000 10-minute showers. In addition, the company introduced ENVIRO-PRIME® EPIC electrocoat, which uses a metal-free catalyst to address environmental and conflict-mineral concerns.

Additional products highlighted at the news conference included SPECTRACRON® ZRC coating, a zinc-rich technology that enables manufacturers to leverage the reduced thickness of a metal substrate to make lighter underbody parts and improve fuel efficiency, and DURANAR® polymer coating for trim that protects substrates that can be used to replace stainless and heavy alloys while assisting manufacturers in light-weighting vehicles.

Another major coatings supplier to the automotive industry, BASF, introduced its innovative EvapTrap™ automotive air intake system hydrocarbon trap. This patented technology is applied directly onto the surface of a vehicle’s air intake box to adsorb engine hydrocarbons without increasing backpressure.

The Air Resources Board of California has adopted new LEV III emissions regulations that go into effect in 2015 and require automakers to further reduce evaporative emissions. The so-called Super Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) standard under these regulations specifies near-zero evaporative emissions.

 “The EvapTrap provides a powerful solution to meet pending SULEV evaporative emissions standards while allowing auto manufacturers to use their existing air intake box, thus reducing complexity and cost for the OEM,” said Nick Leclerc, Product Manager, BASF Mobile Emissions Catalysts.

The air intake system is a key source of evaporative emissions for automobiles, as hydrocarbons in the engine’s fuel source can leak out through the system when the car is not running.

“Traditional solutions involve adding an activated carbon honeycomb or filter to the air intake box to adsorb the hydrocarbons,” Leclerc said. “However this approach can increase backpressure, reducing horsepower and fuel economy. EvapTrap, on the other hand, addresses the evaporative emissions challenge without any backpressure increase.”

Evaporative emissions are measured in a “SHED” (Sealed Housing for Evaporative Determination) test, which is a drive-in chamber built for the purpose of testing the fuel emissions of a vehicle that are not related to engine exhaust. The EvapTrap has been successfully SHED-tested and proven to offer adhesion durability to all air intake box materials, including polypropylene. It is also a tamper-proof solution.

This year’s NAIAS once again demonstrated that the automotive industry is doing its part to create more sustainable solutions for our planet, and that the coatings and finishing industries are there to create products that help them build the cars of tomorrow.