Sunday, July 11, 2004

Building a better car - one atom at a time

Tiny assembly lines cut costs, boost safety

By Nick Bunkley
The Detroit News

Researchers are finding ways to make vehicles safer, lighter, more powerful - and ultimately less expensive - by building materials one atom at a time.

Nanotechnology, which involves working at a scale more than 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, is about to revolutionize the way cars are built and driven.

Factories will run more efficiently with the help of microscopic assembly machines. Injuries caused by accidents will be reduced. And eventually the price of your dream car might finally be a little closer to your budget.

General Motors Corp. is already using nanocomposites to build lighter but stronger running boards for several van models, as well as cargo beds for the Hummer H2 and exterior panels for the Chevrolet Malibu sedan.

But that's only the beginning. Your next car could have a nanocoated windshield that resists cracking and breaking, a lighter body that provides better crash protection or even cup holders that keep your coffee steaming in the morning and your Coke cold on the ride home.

"Things that weren't possible will be possible," said John Bedz, director of the Michigan Small Tech Association, "and things that right now are bulky or inefficient will be enhanced by these technologies."

As Americans' love for bigger vehicles has grown, automakers have gotten used to thinking small. Most cars already have pinhead-sized devices known as microelectromechanical systems - from air-bag accelerometers to engine-oil condition sensors.

But nanotechnology operates on a much tinier level - in terms of nanometers, which are one-millionth of a millimeter. Unlike current production methods, in which existing materials are combined, nanotechnology takes individual atoms and precisely assembles them to produce materials with desirable characteristics.

That means no longer having to choose a heavier body panel to cut costs or a weaker cargo bed to minimize a vehicle's weight.

Other uses for nanotechnology in the auto industry include:

• Suspension systems. Injecting small iron-based particles into certain fluids creates a magnetic field that changes the viscosity from a thin liquid to a solid. This allows a vehicle to instantly alter its suspension system based on the conditions it senses.

• Amenities like cup holders that can absorb or produce heat, keeping beverages at the perfect temperature.

• Scratch-resistant paints.

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