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Ceramics Hold Key Place in the Future of Auto Makers

The Washington Post

The future of the domestic automobile industry very well may rest on sand.

That common substance contains key ingredients for some uncommon materials that are essential to producing a revolutionary type of engine: the ceramic gas turbine.

The country that first perfects such an engine could wind up dominating international auto production, according to domestic and foreign car manufacturers.

A reliable ceramic engine would be a quantum leap forward in efforts to improve fuel efficiency without sacrificing performance or safety in automobiles, auto executives say.

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Ceramic engines allow the compression and expansion of gases at extremely high temperatures without loss of heat or engine damage. An engine that holds its heat without harming itself or other components operates more efficiently.

Turbines Not New

Turbines have been around for years. Chrysler Corp. had an experimental gas-turbine car in 1963. But it never was offered commercially because Chrysler could not find a cost-efficient way to handle the tremendous heat--as much as 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit--generated by the engine.

Improvements in ceramic materials promise to make the gas turbine practical. Indeed, new kinds of ceramics are responsible for changes in products ranging from electronics to false teeth.

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These new ceramics are a far cry from flower pots, bathroom tiles and crockery. These new materials are made up of silicon and other traditional ceramic ingredients combined with carbide polymers, alumina and other materials.

The resulting compounds retain the ability to withstand heat, but are less brittle and more wear-resistant.

The effect on the auto industry is expected to be profound.

Benefits of Turbines

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Unlike traditional piston engines, turbines burn fuel at a steady rate and derive power by directing expanding gases against a fan-like device. The gases turn the fan, which turns a shaft connected to a gearbox. The steady burn and high temperature make for greater efficiency.

“There is no question that an automotive ceramic gas-turbine engine can offer substantial benefits to the automotive industry and to the country,” said John A. Boppart, senior vice president of Garrett Turbine Engine Co. in Phoenix.

But the United States is “not, in fact, doing a very good job of keeping up with the Japanese in ceramics,” Boppart said in recent testimony before the House subcommittee on transportation, aviation and materials.

Garrett is working with Ford Motor Co. to develop an advanced gas-turbine that will have “hot parts"--turbine rotor and blades, combustor assembly, ducts--made of ceramics. General Motors Corp. has a similar effort under way with its Allison Gas Turbine Division.

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The GM and Ford projects have received $116 million, mostly in federal money, since 1980.

The companies are asking the government to ante up another $100 million over the next four years, a request that brought them to Capitol Hill last month and raised the ire of some lawmakers who said that the two companies are rich enough to fund their own research.

But GM and Ford defend their funding requests.

“GM has been in gas-turbine development since 1952,” said Harold E. Helms, chief project engineer for Allison Gas Turbine. “I can assure you that that money did not come from the federal government.”

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Ford recently spent more of its own money, $10 million, to acquire an 11% interest in Ceradyne Inc., a company based in Santa Ana that specializes in commercial applications of ceramics technology.

Much of Ceradyne’s work will involve developing automotive products, said Ford President Harold A. Poling.

But why call on the government?

For all of its benefits, ceramics technology also carries a bag of problems, domestic auto makers say.

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Brittleness is one. Ceramics tend to break or crack under stress, such as that caused by a vehicle crash.

Another problem is bonding ceramics to metals.

The research necessary to solve those problems is costly--too costly for companies that are under market pressure to come up with new products immediately, according to Boppart, Helms and others.

By comparison, Japan is progressing rapidly in ceramics development, largely because auto makers, the government and universities are working together to make Japan the ceramics leader, U.S. auto makers say.

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Japanese Commitment

“What we’ve found in the last four years is that, because of their national commitment, the Japanese can produce more” in the field of ceramics, said Serge Gratch, Ford’s director of vehicle, power train and component research.

“The Japanese simply are able to invest more in ceramics because of their national commitment.”

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. is producing 500 cars a month--its 300 ZX sports models--with ceramic-component turbochargers. These devices increase pressure on the air-fuel mixture in engine combustion chambers.

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Nissan’s ceramic-turbo models currently are sold only in Japan. But if the technology proves effective--and durable--there is little doubt that Nissan will export its ceramic turbos to the United States, giving the company a big advantage over its U.S. rivals in the high-priced end of the domestic car market.


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