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Carbon fiber often occupies the limelight as a light weight material that could take some of the heft out of our cars, and thus improve fuel efficiency -- if only it cost less. But alloys of magnesium, the lightest structural metal, have a history in automotive components tracing back to the 1930s. Now the U.S. government is hoping to jump-start innovative production of the material for use in cars. The Department of Energy opened up a $184 million program this month for advanced vehicle research and development. Among the eight areas where the agency is accepting proposals for improving fuel efficiency in passenger cars is "light weighting materials." As much as $6 million has been designated under this category for projects working toward low-cost, highly efficient production techniques for magnesium components, and another $3 million is available for a demonstration project to develop and construct a front end vehicle sub-structure that's magnesium intensive. The program has a particular interest in techniques using raw materials that are readily available in the U.S.

Difficult To Obtain

"If you have an ocean, you've got raw materials available, but it's very energy intensive to recover them," explained Deborah Kramer, a magnesium specialist and Assistant Chief of Mineral Commodities for the U.S. Geological Survey. In fact, the silvery-white metal is the eighth most abundant element on the planet and the third most plentiful element dissolved in seawater. It can also be recovered from dolomite, a very common raw material used for most of China's magnesium production, said Kramer.

A company in Rowley, Utah about 40 miles west of Salt Lake City, called U.S. Magnesium, is the last remaining producer of magnesium in the United States. Most imports of the metal (87 percent in the third quarter of 2010) come from Israel, said Kramer.

Up until a few years ago, another magnesium producer located in Quebec also supplied magnesium into the U.S. market, but it closed amid rising competition from Chinese and Russian magnesium producer. Anti-dumping duties placed on Chinese imports (following a petition filed by U.S. Magnesium, then called MagCorp) essentially slammed the door on that competition.

Diecastings used for components in automobiles, as well as power tools and lawn mowers, are just one use of magneseium. It's also an ingredient in aluminum alloys (it makes aluminum harder), and it helps with iron and steel desulfurization. As Kramer put it, a magnesium coated salt "pulls sulfur out and gives you better steel." Nonetheless, in the wake of the auto industry's 2008 crisis, as many as 5-6 U.S. magnesium diecasting companies have closed plants due to slumping demand.

U.S. Magnesium's Utah facility has been using brine from the Great Salt Lake as the raw material for magnesium production since 1972. The process leaves behind a slew of wastes, including many hazardous and some cancerous contaminants such as heavy metals, PCBs and dioxins. In November 2009 the government added U.S. Magnesium to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites, declaring it one of the country's most contaminated places. With its new funds for mid-term magnesium projects, the Department of Energy aims to support development of a less polluting process.

How Magnesium Would Benefit Cars

A number of benefits could result from a larger role for magnesium in vehicle design. Used in place of materials such as steel or aluminum for vehicle components and systems, magnesium and its alloys could enable lighter-weight, more fuel-efficient cars. It could also boost performance, as the industry groups USCAR (the United States Council for Automotive Research, made up of Chrysler, General Motors and Ford) and USAMP (United States Automotive Materials Partnership) explained in a 2006 strategic "roadmap." Reducing weight in the front of a car shifts the center of gravity toward the back, which can improve response in steering and cornering. And strategically incorporating magnesium into the roof and doors can lower the center of gravity, reducing rollover risks.

In addition, magnesium parts could potentially reduce noise, vibration and harshness. One large magnesium casting can serve in place of a steel component requiring dozens of pieces, lowering odds that the parts will squeak and rattle due to poor fit. And according to USCAR and USAMP, the thickness and rigidity of a magnesium casting can be varied and controlled in a way that improves crash performance.

That's the hope, anyway. In practice, magnesium alloys can be difficult to work with. According to the Department of Energy, use of magnesium in place of other, higher density materials is often limited by characteristics such as low strength and problems with joining in the manufacturing process. Other issues include variable quality and risk of corrosion on the road. Plus, the overall costs of working with the material are also relatively high, when alloy, tooling, corrosion protection, repair, assembly, and other factors are taken into account.

Seeking to overcome some of these challenges, the DOE's Vehicle Technologies Program spent approximately $6 million this year supporting research at universities, national labs, and in the auto industry. The Pacific Northwest and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for example, are working to develop new welding methods (ultrasonic and friction stir welding) for joining magnesium in a vehicle structure. Other DOE-funded research is focused on developing computer models for magnesium and advanced magnesium joints that can reliably predict crash properties.

Magnesium Used In Vehicles Before

With all of this research under way, magnesium vehicles might sound futuristic. But the metal has cropped up in vehicle designs for decades. Volkswagen used about 40 pounds of magnesium in its Beetle between the late 1930s and 1960s, for example -- mainly in the transmission and air-cooled engine. A 1967 Fiat and a 1978 Alpha Romeo featured cast magnesium wheels.

Audi introduced a magnesium instrument panel cross-car beam in 1989, and the first magnesium automatic transmission a decade later. Maybe you've heard of "mag wheels." Often mistakenly applied to aluminum rims, the term arose from the use of magnesium alloy wheels on race cars.

By the 1990s, magnesium alloy parts included steering wheels, gear boxes, instrument panels, seat components, rims, rear flaps, reflectors, air bag housings, and other components. In 2006, magnesium made up an average of 10-12 pounds of every 3,360-pound vehicle from Detroit automakers, up from less than two pounds per vehicle in the early 1980s, according to Kramer, and about 8.5 pounds in 2001. For comparison, plastics on average made up as much as 260 pounds, aluminum accounted for about 280 pounds, and steel or cast iron made up more than a ton of each vehicle in 2006.

Yet if all of the magnesium components approved for use in vehicles were used in one car, they would weigh more than 380 pounds. In the 2006 magnesium roadmap, USCAR and USAMP set a goal to substitute 340 pounds of magnesium components for 630 pounds of ferrous and aluminum parts by 2020.

At this point, said Kramer, the industry faces something of a chicken-and-egg problem. "If there's one thing automakers like," she said, "it's having multiple suppliers so they can wheel and deal." With a scant few magnesium diecasting suppliers remaining, automakers will "tend to be more hesitant" to specify magnesium parts. So fewer suppliers results means less demand, which supports fewer suppliers. Still, said Kramer, "The auto industry is where magnesium producers put their eggs, and it's still their best bet." With millions of cars hitting the road each year, even "a pound of magnesium per car adds up to a lot."

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Months Ago
      Anyone who has burnt sparklers meant for the fourth of July has experienced the ferocity of magnesium's heat. Sparklers are a good ignition source for thermite, another impressive demonstration of heat's potential. Together, a novel way to delete data from old hard-drives; and amuse the neighbors simultaneously.
      Ricky Nelson's personal touring plane had been retrofitted with magnesium components that burned out of control, bringing it down, killing all aboard.
      Alloy that stuff before letting it loose on the highways!
      • 6 Months Ago
      Was just a matter of a few responses before someone found a way to make this into some sort of validation of the teabaggers! The main reason there is a sudden interest in this research is because we are down to one player on that field any more. and the reason their is no hope for this country if the teabaggers get their was is called ANARCHY! Religious anarchy at that!Less government? Less regulation? More privatization? That is where we came from in the 1800"s and early 1900's. Anyone recall reading?? History shows where we go when we have total lack of control over private business since an ounce of common sense would let you realize the total lack of ethics in the face of greed and profit will destroy us more then we already have been.
      • 6 Months Ago
      hey J.A. Davis you might want to double check your history, Dems controlled congress from 2006 to 2010. Obama may not have raised taxes but his first year budget plan along with the crappy healthcare bill have more than tripled the national deficit.

      Get your facts straight before saying republicans caused the deficit cause congress controls the country not the president.
      • 4 Years Ago
      The key to fuel economy is lower the prices. Duh. Oh and dont let fat people and people with fat kids have drivers licenses cause it takes too much gas to haul their fat butts around.
        • 6 Months Ago
        You are a very shallow person. Remember, you will have to answer to God for your actions and I do hope he will overlook your ignorance, as it is hard for me to. Maybe when you grow up, you will realize how mean and heartless it is to say such things. This site should be for posting opinions on the article, not for bashing others.
        • 6 Months Ago
        "Air head, some people are fat because of gene disorders and diabetes. Sheezzzzz. Don't u ever watch the news or documentaries. Probably not!"

        Wrong. It's a myth spread by fatties. No known medical condition or predisposition can directly cause weight increase by more than 10%. Stuff your fattitude and your excuses. Stop eating.
        • 6 Months Ago
        No known medical condition can cause weight gain over 10%?? Where do u get that nonsense? Many conditions can cause weight gain in much much bigger numbers than that, and many prevent weight loss!! How about a basic, common one like hypothyroidism? Untreated, it can cause continual weight gain of several, even many pounds per month!
        Jo Ann
        • 6 Months Ago
        Air head, some people are fat because of gene disorders and diabetes. Sheezzzzz. Don't u ever watch the news or documentaries. Probably not!
      • 4 Years Ago
      yes and it burns real nice too.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Sounds great, but we also need to start producing gas from seaweed that all I've heard is a lot of talk about.It's probably being held up until the Filthy Rich in this country can squeeze every last drop from their Oil stocks. If I was Obama, I would make this happen tomorrow. Unlimited supply and cheap to produce.
        • 6 Months Ago

        That's because it doesn't work. Or at least not cheaply if it costs $50.00 a gallon to produce it's not worth it. Even the oil sands in Canada cost about $50 or so a barrel to produce. If the oil sells for $40 like it used to it's not gonna work. The E85 ethanol operates at a loss, the govt is paying like $1.50 a gallon to fund it. Would you pay $4.50 or so a gallon for it? Even "biodiesel" if they used fresh plant oils would cost triple or more what regular diesel costs. The fact that they use "waste" oil is the only reason it's cost effective. The first diesels ran on peanut oil. Ford planned on growing the fuels for his cars, but it's just so much cheaper to use our fossil fuels.

      • 4 Years Ago
      Another miracle! The goovernment has found out that magnesium is lighter than air! Now we will have the magnesium committee, and of course the earmarks, and we will restudy the qualities of magnesium! AND, no matter how much knowledge we have in our archives; we will have a new study of sophisticated metals. More government jobs! Magnesium has been around for more than a hundred years! AND, making cars lighter ia another government "pie in the sky" idea!! This does not matter, it will "create" jobs!! Give me a break, Government can do two things well, come up with ancient ideas and spend money! How about health care? If we can get the government to run it; we will probably get the; 100 mile per gallon automobile! You can understand how that will give us independence from foreign oil. AND; there will be less polution of our air! Not only that, think about all of the land fills that would be unnecessary, and we could use the land to spur the housing industry, AND, this will "create" more jobs! Gee, it's a win, win program! It's about time to get rid of this stumbling; bumbling, bunch of nit-wits. OH!, i'm sorry, I forgot about all of the money our citizens will be saving; with the government running health AND care!!
      I better go and bang my head against the wall, that is used to crash test automobiles! Let me know if I forgot anything.
      • 4 Years Ago
      i remember one of the most effective weapons in the bombing of england and japan was incinderary cluster bombs of magnesium! if an auto with any sizeable ammount of this metal catches fire it would be virtually impossible to extinguish!! the only solution for the future will use some form of hydrogen as fuel! talk to your chemist about the use of magnesium rolling at 65-75mph on our freeways! gasoline and deisel fuel for now is the best for fuel with aluminum alloy frames with plastic shells considering our present economic dilema!!! five dollar a gallon gasoline will squelch "any" major developments in the auto industry!!!
      • 4 Years Ago
      Now, I know I'm no expert (much like those who've commented on this before me and will probably scream at this comment later) but I believe I read in the article that it is alloys of magnesium that will be used in the process of making cars, not pure magnesium. It's common knowledge that an alloy of any metal can have radically different properties than that of a pure metal, for example the transformation of pure Iron into Steel, so there is no way to know how a specific alloy of magnesium would perform against the well known attributes of pure Magnesium. I don't mean this to defend the use of the metal, however, it does mean that all this screaming about impossible to extinguish burning cars might be unwarranted. Personally, I'm going to hold off on my judgment until I learn more. I suggest that everyone else should take a deep breath and do the same. After all, its the CONSUMER'S choice to buy these cars. If the consumer decides they don't like the idea of magnesium in their vehicle than they shouldn't buy it if there's any other choice. If enough people do that things have to change, considering big corporations only understand things in terms of sales and profit margins. (And don't yell at me later saying that it's the government doing this and no corporations, this country is being run like one anyway)
      • 4 Years Ago
      "We" are buying oil from the camel jockeys (who actually prefer Rolls Royces, Ferraris, etc.) because it is cheaper; there is more profit to be made by the oil companies. Are you anti-free enterprise, you commie scum?
        • 6 Months Ago
        We buy most of our oil from Canada, and last I checked, they only keep camels in the zoo.
      • 6 Months Ago
      Magnesium? Once magnesium ignites, it can not be put out. How many people are willing to burn to death in the name of saving a few bucks at the pump?
      • 4 Years Ago
      Rolls-Royce used cast magnesium casings on their Dart aero engine. It is a difficult metal even as an alloy to handle. As a casting it shrinks and is very susceptible to cracking. While it is quite strong it cannot take too much flexing before it cracks and welding magnesium is very difficult because of it tendency to burn as other readers have pointed out, and once it ignites it is impossible to extinguish. Similarly it is not an easy metal to machine, again because heat generated during cutting has to be carefully controlled. Surface protection to prevent corrosion is a must!! I believe if magnesium had been a viable choice for autos it would already be in use. It will be more costly to use magnesium than any other material currently in use today.
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