DOE bets on lightweight steel for fuel efficient cars

Greener transportation doesn’t just involve electric vehicles and biofuels. Advanced materials that can make a car more fuel efficient by reducing its weight also can make a difference. That’s the idea behind the Wednesday announcement by the federal government to offer a $730 million loan to a steel maker Severstal in Michigan.

The loan will help Severstal retrofit existing factories and build new factories to create “a wide range of advanced high strength steel” that can cut a vehicle’s weight by 10 percent without sacrificing safety, the DOE said. Lighter cars should require less fuels to operate, and cars made with Severstal’s steel could cut gasoline use by nearly 30 million gallons per year, the DOE added.

Severstal is based in Dearborn, Michigan, but is part of OAO Severstal in Russia. Its American operation is the fourth largest steel maker in the U.S., the company said.

Supporting a steel maker is a lot less sexy than funding, say, electric car makers Tesla Motors (s TSLA) or Fisker Automotive. But this new funding could potentially have a greater impact because it’s about a lighter and stronger material that can find its way into average internal combustion engine cars.

In reality, electric cars won’t be the dominant way for the country to cut oil imports and gasoline consumption for many years to come. EVs will continue to remain more expensive than gasoline vehicles, for one thing. Consumers are waiting not only for the price to come down but also for the batteries to improve so that they don’t have to charge their cars often.

Building lighter cars will help car makers design fuel efficient cars, regardless of the types of fuels used. The Obama administration has been actively pushing for rules to increase fuel economy requirements. It’s reportedly looking at a mandate that all cars and light trucks sold by 2025 will have to reach a 56.2 mpg fuel economy.

Automakers are looking for all sorts of way to reduce the weight of their cars and improve fuel efficiency.  Ford, for example, is turning to a new tech that involves the use of  tiny bubbles in plastic components. Startups are building a variety of fuel efficient internal combustion engines, too.

The loan to Severstal comes from a program that supports advanced automotive technologies. So far, the DOE has approved $9 billion to six recipients, including Severstal.

Photo courtesy of Severstal