Magnifying Magnesium Use at Ford Automaker readies material for major applications beginning in '02

It figures. As soon as I'm finished writing an article for the materials section in the September issue about how magnesium growth in automotive applications during the last decade has been slower than most predictions have indicated, Ford Motor Co.'s Tom Sweder comes forward with a pretty startling revelation.

"In 15 years, magnesium will be the initial choice over aluminum," says Mr. Sweder, manager-weight engineering, advanced vehicle engineering. "We're using magnesium to replace steel and plastic, and it's coming lighter and cheaper," he adds.

While I've been quick in the last year or two to dismiss similar statements regarding magnesium as just another overly optimistic forecast - after seeing so many fall so short of their original predictions - Mr. Sweder has me convinced by the time our conversation is done that magnesium's time has arrived. Well, almost. "Hang on, it'll be coming. It's just taken a little longer to develop applications than we expected," he says. "It's going to take off at a pretty good rate around 2002."

More like blast off. In the September issue I cited data from Richard A. Schultz, project coordinator with Ducker Research Co. Inc., with a prognostication that magnesium use will grow by an industry average of 38 lbs. (17.2 kg) per vehicle during this decade. Magnesium use currently is estimated between 2 to 9 lbs. (0.9 to 4.1 kg) per vehicle. So Mr. Ducker's projections are considerable.

But they're not upbeat enough for Mr. Sweder. "I think it'll exceed that," he reveals, believing that 50 to 100 lbs. (23 to 46 kg) of magnesium likely will be added to vehicles over the next 10 years.

When pressured for details on how Ford is going to increase magnesium use so significantly, Mr. Sweder refuses to elaborate, which only reinforces my belief that his forecasts are genuine. Because if nothing is in product development, then there would be open discussion on possible magnesium applications, as there has been. "We have exciting designs that are two-and-a-half years out," Mr. Sweder says. "We're going to have a one- to two-year lead, and then others will begin to mimic our designs."

While that may sound like Ford has made some far-reaching technological achievements, the automaker hasn't - yet - found a way to use magnesium in high-strength components (e.g. suspensions) or high-heat applications, which is one of the silvery material's greatest weaknesses. "(Magnesium) starts to contort around 150øC (302øF). Maybe new alloys will develop eventually. But today's design just can't put up with that wear and tear," Mr. Sweder says.

That doesn't mean, however, that Ford won't make technological breakthroughs when it begins ramping up magnesium use in 2002. Apparently, the components that traditionally have been considered possible growth areas for magnesium - intake manifolds, oil pans, and engine cradles, etc. - generally won't contribute to its increased consumption at Ford. "It'll be (applications) you don't expect," Mr. Sweder reveals. "People have a preconceived notion of where to use magnesium, and that's been part of the problem."

Another detriment that caused magnesium to miss all those growth projections is a widespread lack of knowledge. For instance, there wasn't even a fire code established in the U.S. for storing volatile magnesium until Ford and General Motors Corp. agreed to work together to solve the problem. "It's not just well enough known where people have the answers," Mr. Sweder explains.

Ford teamed up with Volvo Car to clear one more hurdle - corrosion resistance. "Magnesium corrodes. So we've done a lot of work with Volvo on that, such as using better bolts that don't induce corrosion," Mr. Sweder explains.

Other problems remain. Magnesium needs a better pricing mechanism and the removal of trade barriers.

But apparently magnesium's remaining drawbacks aren't enough to stop its growth. The International Magnesium Assn., for example, is predicting annual demand (594,139 tons [539,000 t]) will outstrip supply (447,533 tons [406,000 t]) by 2004. But Ford won't be affected by an industry-wide shortage, thanks to its affiliation with the large Australian Magnesium Corp.