The steel and aluminum industries escalated their public wrangling over future automotive applications when findings from an ongoing study contracted by the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) claimed that increasing aluminum use actually would have a negative environmental impact.

The accusations were met with disbelief by the Aluminum Assn. Inc. "Their assumptions are totally off base," says Richard L. Klimisch, Aluminum Assn. vice president, automotive. "The independent scientists were offended by the way they manipulated some of the assumptions."

Linda Gaines, who works at the Argonne National Laboratory, was disappointed with AISI. "Steel's got a good story to tell without pulling any punches," suggests Ms. Gaines.

So the war of words rages on, despite cease fire requests by automakers. The latest tiff was caused by results from an AISI-funded study. Presented by Peter T. Peterson, director, Marketing Automotive - Flat Rolled Products at U.S. Steel, the study asserts that aluminum isn't a more environmental friendly replacement for steel because manufacturing aluminum requires tremendous amounts of electricity - most commonly produced by environmentally dirty coal-burning power plants.

The report also says there isn't enough "clean" electrical generating capacity (such as hydroelectric), to make large-scale aluminum smelting processes more environmentally friendly. The study also claims that AAI's estimates of how much weight can be taken out of vehicles by using more aluminum are exaggerated.

Furthermore, argues Mr. Peterson, as cleaner automotive powerplants become more prevalent, the need for aluminum in automotive applications diminishes. "Most of the hybrid, fuel cell systems have batteries. These batteries are heavy. So you've got to lighten the vehicle," counters Mr. Klimisch.

While AAI admits aluminum processing is energy-intensive, Mr. Klimisch says hydroelectric power generating capacity is sufficiently increasing and that making a vehicle accounts for only 10% of the energy used during its lifetime anyway. "So when you save weight, as aluminum does, that turns out to be an advantage from an overall life cycle of the product," explains Mr. Klimisch.

Plus, automakers increasingly are using recycled aluminum; 65% of aluminum used in vehicles today is recycled from previous automotive applications as well as house siding, plumbing and other uses. As for AISI claims that the AAI distorted weight savings and pollution figures, Mr. Klimisch notes: "They've taken the assumption that there's no recycling."

Due to the steel industry's considerable advertising and marketing efforts, AAI is considering increasing its budget. "I believe their program is intensifying, Mr. Klimisch says. "So we are going to have to step it up."