Despite recent developments that could be viewed as setbacks to the magnesium market, an executive at Ford Motor Co. is predicting automotive use of the light metal will increase tenfold by 2020.

Ford is by far the world's top automotive magnesium consumer, claims a report by Hydro Magnesium Marketing SA. Says Gerald S. Cole, a senior staff technical specialist in Ford's Manufacturing Systems Dept., "We're nurturing this industry because we know it has potential." But right now it is reeling.

Dow Chemical Co. announced in late November it would close its 57-year-old Gulf Coast plant in Freeport, TX; the Midland, MI-based company had produced magnesium for more than 80 years. The Gulf Coast plant accounted for 14% of world's magnesium capacity.

In Dow's absence, remaining suppliers are facing a large increase in demand. "It puts pressure on new producers to come on line a little faster," says William B. Burton, president and director, Magnesium Alloy Corp., which has plans to begin producing magnesium in 2002 in southwest Africa.

Dow's exit may have other effects. "They had a strong technological development role," says T. A. (Tom) Sweder, manager-weight engineering for Advanced Vehicle Technology at Ford.

Ford itself added to magnesium's troubles this year by converting from magnesium to aluminum transfer cases on most of its 4-wheel-drive vehicles. But the company says it is increasing use of the material from about 3 lbs. (1.4 kg) per vehicle in 1996 to 12 lbs. (5.5 kg) per vehicle by 2003.

Meanwhile, magnesium-production facilities owned by Ford and Volkswagen AG are struggling to meet targets. Mr. Cole admits that the Australian Magnesium Corp. Pty. Ltd. facility, in which Ford has invested $30 million, is a "little behind" schedule.

AMC still is scheduled to begin production in 2002. The Dead Sea Magnesium Ltd. plant in Israel, owned 35% by VW, lowered its production targets for 1999 by 5,000 to 25,000 tons (4,500 t to 22,500 t).

"We have not yet seen a return on that investment," says Jens Neumann, VW board member in charge of North America, adding it may be another five years before VW begins to see a return on the joint venture with Dead Sea Works Ltd.

In 2001, Ford again will use magnesium for its transfer cases, as well as instrument panels. "That's the first step (toward having 12 lbs. per vehicle by 2003)," says Mr. Cole.

At Ford's recent MagExpo '98, Visteon Automotive Systems displays an instrument panel system with no add-on components; currently, steering columnsand HVAC are not part of integrated IPs. Ford also shows off a magnesium intake manifold that produces 7 hp more than its aluminum counterpart.