By Sarah Fister Gale
Small Times Contributing Editor
Feb. 12, 2007 — Mark Field, president of Ford Motor Company of the Americas, recognizes the huge potential nanotech research holds for the future of automotive manufacturing. “The breadth of possibilities for new materials are endless,” he said at a press conference on February 7 during the 2007 Chicago Auto Show, where Ford unveiled its latest investment in nanotech research at Northwestern University.
In a drive to ramp up development of lighter weight metals, more durable plastics and other revolutionary materials, the company invested $2 million in Imago’s Local Electrode Atom Probe tomograph (LEAP), that is now housed at the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The LEAP, one of only four such tools in North America, uses a high electric field to remove individual atoms from material surfaces and a position-sensitive detector to record information that reveals the atom’s position and identity. The incorporation of a local electrode eliminates or mitigates many of the performance limitations of traditional atomic probe tomographs (ATPs). It can rapidly analyze the molecular make-up of metals and plastics down to their atomic structure, and projects statistically relevant 3D image of the nanostructure. The resulting data breaks down the primary elements in the composition and defines the make-up and location of trace elements and unusual clusters that could have implications for material improvements.
Ford has invested $2 million in Imago’s LEAP (Photo: Imago)
The device is exciting, both in that in delivers information in a fraction of the time that conventional ATPs require, and that it enables researchers to gather data not previously attainable, says Erica Perry Murray, Ford on-campus manager for the Ford Boeing Northwestern Alliance. “Experiments that used to take 10 months to complete, can now be conducted in less than 16 hours,” she says. “With that speed and statistical relevance, the LEAP eliminates much of the trial and error of developing new materials.”
Ford anticipates that the work being done with the LEAP will lead to new materials being incorporated into vehicle design faster than previously imagined. “We are at the early stages of nanotechnology research but our research is solutions-based and we are excited about the potential applications,” says Fields.
While none of the nanotech materials projects being conducted through the Alliance have come to market yet, Ford anticipates developments in the areas of lighter weight metals, more durable plastics, scratch and ding resistant paint, light sensitive window tints and stain resistant upholstery. Initially the coatings and paints have the most near term potential because they will not have to go through the rigorous safety testing that the structural materials must complete, Murray says. Ford predicts that it will be using durable nano-based paints and some coating technologies on several vehicles by 2010.
Fields notes that all of these potential materials will translate into value-adds for consumers and have potential for greater fuel economy through the reduction of vehicle weight. “Weight savings is going to be very important in the future of vehicle design.”