How eager is Ford Motor Co. to lose a few pounds per vehicle?
Eager enough to turn to magnesium, a difficult and little-used metal that will cause the company to learn a whole new science of parts-making.
Magnesium requires more energy and equipment to process than aluminum, the most popular metal alternative to steel. Magnesium costs almost three times more to use. In powder or chip form, magnesium can be dangerously flammable, and as a result, producers must ensure that local fire departments have special training and keep foams on hand.
On top of that, the global magnesium supply is severely limited, especially since Dow Chemical Co., the world's largest supplier, withdrew from the market last year.
But magnesium does have a few alluring qualities: Pound for pound, it is stronger than aluminum or steel, and about one-third lighter than aluminum. It has a lower melting temperature than aluminum, making it easier on casting dies. And it flows better in molten form to allow higher precision.
Those positives attracted Volkswagen AG when it picked a magnesium alloy to form the transaxle case in the original Beetle. Ford now has more ambitious plans for the metal. The automaker is targeting parts made of steel, aluminum and iron for conversion to magnesium, especially in its portly light trucks. Those parts include intake manifolds, oil pans, instrument panel braces, wheels and transfer cases.
But before that can happen, Ford must tackle supply and price problems.
The company has sunk $30 million into a joint venture with Australian magnesium producers to develop a low-cost smelting process. It will be used in a new plant in northern Australia that eventually will produce 90,000 tons of magnesium a year. With that stable supply, Ford plans to boost its magnesium use from three pounds per vehicle to 12 pounds by 2003.
Those may seem like small gains - especially considering Ford vehicles now average about 260 pounds of aluminum and the equivalent amount of plastic. But because Ford builds about 7 million vehicles annually, the automaker may be increasing its yearly magnesium purchases by more than 32,000 tons.
'Magnesium is not an exotic metal,' notes Gerald Cole, a senior technical specialist with Ford's Research Laboratory. 'It has been around for a hundred years. And if you design a part right, it can be the same price (as aluminum) because you can use less material.'
The trick is bringing down the processing cost.
Magnesium is not rare. It can be harvested from seawater (where it makes up 14 percent of the content) or mined as magnesite ore. But the finished product sells for roughly $1.60 per pound, vs. about 60 cents per pound for aluminum, Cole says.
The higher price is due to the need for smelters that produce magnesium ingots. Building the plant can cost $10,000 per ton of output - compared with $2,000 per ton to build an aluminum plant, Cole says.
Those economics have scared away many raw-material producers and kept the global output of magnesium to a tiny fraction of aluminum's output. This year the worldwide magnesium industry is expected to produce just 440,000 tons, about equal to the production of one medium-sized aluminum plant. If the magnesium industry did not grow, Ford's increased purchases alone would put a significant squeeze on the world supply.
That is why Ford has invested in Australia.
The plant under construction in central Queensland with the Australian Magnesium Corp. Pty. Ltd. will use a new technology for extracting the moisture from magnesium chloride - the intermediate form of magnesium as it is purified from ore to ingot.
Cole believes magnesium can be produced at a price competitive with aluminum's, particularly if world demand picks up enough to fully amortize the cost of the equipment.
Once a cheaper supply is established, another hurdle remains: Ford's engineers will have to be retrained to work in the metal, says Tom Sweder, Ford's manager of weight engineering for advanced vehicle technology.
For magnesium to be cost-effective, engineers will have to know how to take advantage of its qualities, he says. For example, an aluminum filter housing must be designed with walls no thinner than 2.5 to 3 millimeters to maintain strength, whereas a magnesium housing could be cast with walls as thin as 1.5 millimeters.
In addition, the metal will always be limited by its physical properties, says Richard Schultz, an industry metals consultant with Ducker Research of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. In molten form it makes fine castings, but once solidified, magnesium's crystalline structure makes it brittle and difficult to stamp or extrude.
'Unfortunately, God doesn't give all materials all the wonderful properties,' Schultz says. 'Magnesium is great, but you're not going to make a hood out of it.'
Sweder adds: 'Right now only about 200 to 300 people in Detroit know how to design in magnesium, and the universities don't really have magnesium programs. We're going to have to rewrite the rule book.'
Is it worth it, financially speaking? Cole says yes. Magnesium allows for weight reduction, and less weight means better fuel efficiency. 'When you look at all the ways you can improve fuel efficiency,' he says, 'weight reduction is the least costly.'