U.S. Backs Significant Auto Materials Research

Car doors that can weigh 60% less.

Car doors that can weigh 60% less.

Titanium component material requirements reduced by a factor of 10, making that material more automotive-ready.

Composite production costs cut by 20%, thereby making auto applications more attainable.

These are the potential outcomes of three of 13 projects that the U.S. Energy Department is funding, a $54-million investment that will be leveraging $17-million cost share from the private sector.


In the case of the first, General Motors is the lead on the project that is for developing a super-vacuum die casting process for a new magnesium alloy. It is working with Meridian Lightweight Technologies and The Ohio State University. The idea is to die cast such things as car door inners with magnesium rather than using the traditional stamping and joining steel. The energy savings in the process is expected to be on the order of 50%, and the weight-save 60%. (DOE investment: $2,672,124)

The second is a project being headed by the University of Utah. It is developing a new lower-temperature, near-net shape powder metallurgy process for producing automotive (and aerospace) parts. It is working with the Army Research Laboratory, Reading Alloys/Ametek, and Ford Motor. (DOE investment: $1,460,285)

And the third is being led by The Dow Chemical Co., and is aimed at a lower-cost carbon fiber production process that uses polyolefin in place of conventional, more expensive, polyacrylonitrile as the feed stock. It is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Ford on this project. In addition to the 20% in production cost savings, there could be a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 50%. (DOE investment: $9,000,000.)

What some well-meaning people who are critical of government investments in high-tech undertakings like these, perhaps, fail to realize is that global competitors often have the support of their governments in such programs. Consider, for example, the German Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, which operates more than 80 research institutes, 60 of which are based in Germany.

According to its most recent annual report (2010): “The organization’s more than 18,000 employees handle an annual total business volume of €1.66 billion, €1.40 billion of which relates to contract research. Over 70 percent of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft’s contract research revenue is derived from contracts with industry and publicly financed research projects, while the remaining share of just under 30 percent is funded by the federal and Länder governments.”  Does anyone doubt that BMW, VW and Mercedes aren’t benefitting from this?

And does anyone imagine that the Japanese, Korean and, yes, Chinese governments don’t have funding mechanisms in place to advance their automotive and other industries?