Ford accelerates nanotechnology work into lightweight metals

Tags: manufacturing

Ford Motor Company announced recently that it is using one of the most advanced laboratory devices in North America to accelerate its nanotechnology research into lighter-weight metals and plastics with greater strength, ultimately helping improve the safety and fuel economy of Ford cars and trucks.

The device, called the Local Electrode Atom Probe (LEAP), is housed at Northwestern University and is now one of only four such tools in North America. This new laboratory tool enables Ford to cut in half the amount of time it takes to analyze the molecular makeup of metals and plastics and determine ways to tailor the material to make lighter-weight and more durable parts.

“Ford has a long history of research in the field of nanotechnology, and this relationship will strengthen our knowledge for the future,” said Dr. Gerhard Schmidt, Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering.

Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating materials at the atomic or molecular level – the size of a billionth of an inch. It is often referred to as a general-purpose technology because it has the potential to impact all industries and areas of society. Its use in pharmaceuticals, electronics and optics is rapidly developing. Nanomaterials, for example, are already being used in sunblock and cosmetics. Nanotechnology is not a product but a set of methods, tools and materials to make better-performing products.

Its use in the automotive industry holds the most promise and is expected to grow. By 2015, experts predict nanomaterials will reach 70 percent usage in automotive applications, with revenues reaching almost $7 billion.

Nano at Ford
Ford was one of the first automakers to apply nanotechnology to its products. Ford has been active since the 1970s in exhaust catalysis and emission controls, which are nano-based systems. Catalysts use nanoscale precious metals to increase the surface area of the metal, reducing costs and making them more efficient.

In 2003, Dr. Haren Gandhi, a Ford technical fellow in emissions and catalysts, won the prestigious National Medal of Technology for exhaust catalyst work. Ford also was an early leader in the development of scanning probe microscopes, which allowed scientists to better view matter at a nano level.

Ford, Boeing and Northwestern
At Northwestern, Ford researchers are working with nanotechnology to develop stronger and lighter structural materials, such as metals and plastic composites. These metals and plastics use nanoparticles as fillers that reduce weight and increase strength. Researchers are making aluminum castings stronger and better performing, such as engine blocks. Paints and glass that block the sun's infrared radiation and actually clean themselves of dirt and grime are being researched.

In addition, Ford is developing nanofluids, which involves dispersing nano-scale particles into vehicle liquids, such as coolants and engine oil, lubricants and transmission fluids. Ford scientists found that sprinkling nanoparticles into these liquids reduces friction and increases thermal conductivity – both of which allow the liquid to operate at lower temperatures.

“Since nanotechnology can impact such a wide range of vehicle components and functionalities, it provides a versatile toolkit for meeting anticipated customer expectations for performance, comfort, convenience and quality,” said Erica Perry Murray, on-campus Ford Boeing Northwestern alliance manager.

The alliance between Ford, Boeing and Northwestern paves the way for the three to research commercial applications of nanotechnology. The agreement is designed to pave the way for future advancements in transportation, specialty metals, thermal materials, coatings and sensors.

The nanotechnology alliance between Ford and Boeing is the latest development in an 11-year relationship that has resulted in improved products for both companies.

Examples of past innovations between Ford and Boeing include:

  • Human Factors Modeling: Ford shared with Boeing its “Third Age Suit,” which is made of materials that add bulk, restrict movement and obscure vision to help give engineers and designers a feel for the needs of the elderly. By using the suit, Ford and Boeing engineers have been able to research ways to provide more user-friendly interiors for cars and aircraft.
  • Aluminum Bonding: Boeing shared with Ford its expertise in aluminum bonding from aerospace products for production of the Ford GT supercar. The technology, including the use of “friction stir welding,” was used by Ford to bond the center tunnel of the Ford GT to its floor pan without deformation.
  • Rapid Prototyping: Boeing and Ford shared knowledge of rapid prototyping to refine and develop methods that allow part designs created in a computer to be “printed” in 3-D by a computer-operated laser that cures a photo-sensitive resin. This “printed” model becomes a prototype part without the need for expensive tooling. Ford now can cast parts as large as an engine block with rapid prototyping equipment in days instead of months or weeks.

Ford and Boeing also have committed to a technology exchange program, which includes providing access to each other’s talented people, technology and process know-how to benefit their products.

For Northwestern University, the alliance is an opportunity to develop even closer working relationships. Having embedded personnel leads to better understanding and identification of each partner’s needs and expertise, the university says, and provides opportunities for technology sharing that benefit everyone.

Northwestern has been one of the early leaders in the field of nanoscience and home of one of the first nanotechnology centers in the country.

The study of nanomaterials and technology transcends many departments and schools within the university, ranging from engineering and chemistry to biology and medicine. The learning experiences of students who will be involved with faculty in the new research project are unique opportunities that prepare them for their future roles as creators of value.

In 2005, Ford and Northwestern University dedicated a new $30 million engineering center on the school’s campus in Evanston, Ill., near Chicago. Ford provided a $10 million grant to build the new Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center as part of the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science facility.

“We are pleased to be involved with such an innovative company as Boeing and a university as esteemed as Northwestern,” Ford’s Schmidt explained. “Although our products are different in many ways, we share a common goal of innovating for the future together.”