The Dow Chemical Co.'s recent decision to license its magnesium technology may draw little direct interest from the automotive industry.

But one Ford Motor Co. executive believes it opens the door to a possible coalition among automakers that would support the development and research of magnesium through a chain of Tier I suppliers, die casters and universities.

T.A. (Tom) Sweder, manager of weight engineering-advanced vehicle technology, stresses that the coalition remains just the result of brainstorming sessions and says Ford hasn't approached other automakers about the idea. But he adds Dow's decision to exit the magnesium business late last fall (see Ward's Automotive Reports — Dec. 7, '98, p.1) has left more of a technological void in the market rather than a supply shortage. “That's what we're worried about,” Mr. Sweder says.

One of the roadblocks that would stand in the way of a coalition is how companies would work together furthering the development of magnesium without revealing proprietary information. But similar associations, such as the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles and the Auto/Steel Partnership, have been successful.

The latter seems to better resemble Ford's initial concept. It includes 11 automakers and steel suppliers. They jointly oversee strategic planning committees, task forces and projects focused on everything from reducing tooling costs to making more ding-resistant steel. A Dow spokeswoman says a non-exclusive arrangement, meaning more than one company could use Dow's magnesium technology, is possible.

Automakers rave about magnesium's properties. But the extraction process also makes magnesium very expensive. And there are several other issues facing the magnesium industry. A broader, more reliable supply base must be developed as well as a recycling network. Corrosion properties need to be enhanced. Creep characteristics, high-temperature strength and assembling processes with other materials also have to be resolved if magnesium is going to play a greater role in automotive applications. “We've got to better understand magnesium,” says Mr. Sweder.

At least one of the concerns facing magnesium, procurement and supply, seems to be dissipating, at least from a long-term perspective. “Magnesium is popping up everywhere,” says Mr. Sweder.