Ford looks to nanotech for auto performance, fuel economy

April 16, 2008 — In its quest for fuel efficiency, Ford Motor Company is developing nanotechnology-based paints, plastics, light metals, and catalysts that allow vehicle weight reduction and improved fuel economy without sacrificing quality. During this week’s 2008 SAE World Congress in Detroit, the Society of Automotive Engineers’ annual conference, company researchers are reporting how Ford is leveraging nanoparticles to improve automotive materials.

“Industry is becoming more efficient at creating nanoparticles,” said Matthew Zaluzec, manager of the Materials Science & Nanotechnology Department for Ford Research and Advanced Engineering. “Our challenge is to take those nanoparticles, separate them and disperse them into existing materials in a way that makes our vehicles lighter, more durable, and more fuel efficient.”

Vehicle weight reduction is a key part of Ford’s strategy to improve fuel economy by 40% by 2020 — without compromising safety.

Ford powertrains already are benefiting from nanotechnology and mircomechanical properties: A Ford study dubbed “Atoms to Engines” looked at the structure of cast aluminum alloys at near atomic levels. From this work, a detailed analysis of the structure/property/process relationship of the aluminum alloy engine blocks has led to reduced engine weight.

“Many thought our aluminum engine technology was mature and fully optimized,” Zaluzec said. “Not until we looked at every aspect of the materials and manufacturing process were we able to pull out another 10 percent in structural performance out of our engines, which directly translates into weight and fuel economy savings year over year. It’s nano at the working level.”

Ford’s European research lab in Aachen, Germany, is developing a thermally sprayed nano-coating that could replace the heavier cast iron liners that provide the necessary wear resistance of cylinder bores in aluminum block engines. This thin, wear-resistant coating reduces weight and improves friction performance while delivering equal durability and reliability to the product.

Researchers are also evaluating advanced surface coating applications that could enhance paint adhesion, appearance and durability. “We want to take paint beyond what our customers are used to seeing on a vehicle,” Zaluzec said. “We constantly ask questions like, can I change the functionality of a paint layer to give a unique appearance, to control heat dissipation or improve durability beyond what we’ve achieved to date?”

Nanotechnology also is being eyed for energy storage solutions for alternative power sources such as lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells.

By 2015, experts predict nanomaterials will reach 70% usage in automotive applications, says Ford.

Ford says it was one of the first automakers to apply nanotechnology to its products with the advent of today’s catalytic convertor. Ford has been active since the 1970s in exhaust catalysis and emissions controls, which are nano-based systems. Ford also was an early leader in the application of scanning probe microscopes, which allowed scientists to better view matter at a nano level.

In 2007, Ford formed an alliance with Boeing and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., home to one of the first nanotechnology centers in the country. The alliance, which was created to research commercial applications of nanotechnology, is producing promising results in the areas of specialty metals, plastic composites, thermal materials, coatings and sensors that could have large-scale uses across the transportation industry in the future, according to Ford.

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