PLYMOUTH, MI – Reports China will begin a trial run of methanol-powered cars to test the safety of the fuel and vehicles no doubt caught the attention of Freudenberg-NOK’s F.J. “Joe” Walker.

As director-materials development and chemical regulatory compliance Americas, Walker is in the midst of a $50,000, 18-month study of the effects of methanol fuel on engine seals, gaskets and other parts made of fluorocarbon elastomers (FKM) and plastics, largely because of the growing use of the alternative fuel – and its wide-ranging inconsistency – in China.

The Chinese government will sponsor a methanol-vehicle test in its northern provinces of Shanxi and Shaanxi, as well as in the metropolis of Shanghai before deciding whether to expand availability of the fuel to a larger region, Reuters says.

But Walker says Freudenberg-NOK already is seeing broader use of methanol in the world’s fastest-growing new-vehicle market, and the inconsistency of the fuel blends available could threaten the reliability and durability of critical engine-sealing components the company supplies.

“The challenge is, while there is a fuel standard in China, the reality is it is really uncontrolled,” Walker tells WardsAuto in an interview at Freudenberg-NOK’s 13-year-old North American headquarters here. “The (methanol) blends in the fuels can go from none to 100%.”

The situation is similar to what happened in the U.S. a few years ago as ethanol fuel and the vehicles equipped to use it became more widely available.

In a study completed in 2007, Freudenberg-NOK catalogued the effect 100% ethanol and ethanol blended with gasoline in increments of 10%, 25%, 50% and 85% had on various formulations of FKM (rubber) seals and gaskets, allowing the supplier to design parts and optimize material formulations to better stand up to the fuel.

That process now is being repeated with methanol.

The research program will see Freudenberg-NOK immerse several different components made of various elastomer blends in a variety of methanol-gasoline fuel mixtures at a wide range of temperatures.

After bathing in the fuel for six weeks, or 1,008 hours, parts are stretched to determine whether tensile strength has been retained and examined closely to make sure there’s no unwanted change in size, shape or weight that could deteriorate performance.

Trials began last summer, and more than 1,100 such immersions are planned. Results are due later this year, and Walker expects the research to keep Freudenberg-NOK one step ahead of its customers.

“We’re not necessarily being told by any major OEM to make sure (our) product is robust in this fuel or that fuel,” he says. “But it’s coming.

“Our focus here is to more or less conform to our No.1 guiding principle, which is anticipating and meeting the needs of our customers,” the Freudenberg-NOK executive adds. “So this is the anticipating part.”

One of the reasons the supplier is trying to stay ahead of the curve is the current capacity shortage of relevant raw materials.

“The worldwide demand (for some polymers) is 10%-15% greater than the world’s capacity to produce,” Walker says. “Prices are going up, particularly on things such as FKMs.

“That forces customers to look at a Plan B,” he says. “If we can’t get the polymer, is there alternative material we can use? We need to have this database so we can say, ‘You can use this, but at the sacrifice of this particular characteristic.’”

There’s also a growing trend among auto makers to offer the same engines in multiple markets, which means seals need to be robust enough to withstand the debilitating effects of gasoline in the U.S, ethanol in Brazil and methanol in China, Walker says.

“I’m sure the engines General Motors makes in Tonawanda (NY) won’t be just for the U.S,” he says. “The purpose of all this is to make sure we don’t have to provide a special seal for a particular geographic area. Nobody wins like that.”

Freudenberg-NOK’s research operation here is as extensive as can be found at any automotive supplier, with separate labs focused on areas such as adhesives, compounds, physical-properties testing and materials analytics.

All are well-stocked with high-tech tools, from rubber mixers and mills to spectroscopy machines for examining material composition and environmental chambers for extreme testing.

More than 1,000 laboratory activities are processed here annually, with work surrounding development of new materials and components, as well as support for Freudenberg-NOK’s manufacturing operations.

Walker acknowledges all this research and designed-in performance may cost Freudenberg-NOK customers a little more upfront.

“(But) those (higher) piece-part prices are going to save you money in the long run,” he says. “I use this phrase, ‘silent technology.’ It is the silent technology that is the behind-the-scenes testing; this data that happens during the material development process.

“It is the silent technology that is built into the products that keeps you from having warranty (issues).”

dzoia@wardsauto.com