Somewhere deep in the bowels of a laboratory at Dow Chemical Co. is a material that will stop a 5-lb. (2.3-kg) ball bearing dead in its tracks. Drop the ball bearing from a foot high onto a strip of this strange polymer and it sucks the kinetic energy right out of the bearing. There's no bounce or rebound. Drop it from three times that height and you get the same result. Larry Denton doesn't know what automotive applications there might be for such a material, but as president of Dow's newly transformed automotive unit, he's going to try to find out.

Last October Dow Chemical announced that Dow Automotive now will be operating under a different business model and become its first "industry-focused business unit" as Dow morphs itself into what it calls "a more solutions-oriented science and technology company." Essentially Dow Automotive now is a "company within a company" that will operate with higher aspirations and breadth of service than ever before, says Dow Chemical Co.'s CEO, Bill Stavropoulos.

It's difficult to sort through all the official corporate speak as to what exactly it is trying to accomplish, (other than serve its customers better and raise its stock price), but Mr. Denton is pretty clear on a couple of points: only about 5% of all the plastics Dow makes ends up in cars and trucks, and he's trying take better advantage of Dow's vast research and development resources that might currently be outside automotive's realm. In addition, the new organization will offer more than the traditional raw materials supplier by providing innovative solutions and increased technical and application development expertise for systems, parts and modules, he promises.

The new automotive unit also integrates Essex Specialty Products and its joint venture partnerships to offer a broader product portfolio including adhesives, sealants and coatings.

There are hundreds - if not thousands - of fascinating materials in various stages of development in Dow's huge complex of laboratories, and Mr. Denton wants to do a better job of bringing them to market - the automotive market, in particular. In essence, the company that brags it already has the largest portfolio of plastics to offer automakers is saying "there's plenty more where that came from."

Mr. Denton laughs off the idea of turning the energy absorbing stuff into goalie pads, but he says there are plenty of other high-tech polymers on the front burner at Dow that have immediate potential in the auto industry. An example is nanocomposites, one of the hottest new technologies in materials science. Nanocomposites are tiny particles or flakes that are much smaller than the talc, mica or other conventional filler materials normally used to improve the engineering characteristics of a base plastic resin.

Unlike talc, mica or glass fibers, nano-composites can make plastic parts stiffer and more dimensionally stable without harming low-temperature impact performance or making surface finishes wavy or bumpy. A 5% loading of nanocomposites often can increase part stiffness characteristics equivalent to a 25% or 35% talc-filled material. It all boils down to plastic car parts that are stronger, lighter, less expensive and easier to paint.

Dow scientists also have been manipulating what Mr. Denton calls "molecular architecture" and producing something he calls "strand foam," which has a different type of cell structure than conventional plastic foams. Its moldability and energy absorbing characteristics make it an ideal material for meeting new FMVSS 208 head impact requirements for A- and B-pillars on vehicles, he says.

Can new material technologies really have that great an impact on future vehicle development? Yes, insists Mr. Denton. For instance, he says if someone could invent a polymer that lit up, automakers could use it to make taillights. That might not sound like a great innovation, he admits, but that in turn could eliminate the need for big expensive taillight lenses, assemblies and reflectors. The elimination of those assemblies could make rear quarter panels easier to fabricate and less expensive. It would reduce weight and increase usable trunk room, and so on. Gosh, will there ever be such a polymer?

Mr. Denton smiles and hints that somewhere in Dow's network of materials laboratories, someone is working on one.

Intermet to close Ironton Iron Foundry Troy, MI-based Intermet Corp. will close its Ironton Iron Inc. foundry in Ironton, OH, early this year. The foundry, which employs about 600 hourly and salaried workers, is expected to lose most of its remaining business in early 2000 as customers move work to other suppliers. The foundry is one of Intermet's oldest, and the cost of modernization would not be cost-effective. The plant manufactures cast ductile iron parts for automotive customers, primarily for use in domestic light vehicles. It has an annual casting capacity of 98,000 tons, but is currently operating at about 50% capacity.

Palladium demand driven by auto industry World demand for palladium for auto catalysts is expected to rise more than 500,000 troy ounces this year with the bulk of the increase, about 68%, coming in North America. Palladium demand in North America is expected to rise to about 2.81 million ounces this year from 2.47 million ounces last year. The auto industry is expected to increase palladium purchases by 11%, the eighth consecutive year that the market has seen double-digit growth.

England gets first aluminum-body car Even though the majority of Ford Motor Co.'s aluminum auto body development, testing and evaluation was done in North America, England will be where the automaker's first production of cars with light-alloy bodies will occur. It's likely that the aluminum sheet for the bodies will be sourced there as well. The decision is disappointing to domestic aluminum sheet producers, stamping companies and metal subassembly fabricators. For the next few years, Ford's use of aluminum sheet in North American-built cars and light-duty trucks will be limited to applications such as hoods, fenders and decklids.