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DETROIT — Solvay Automotive Inc. has started mass production of thermoplastic fuel tanks and air-intake manifolds at a new, $80 million plant in Adrian, Mich.

The 300,000-square-foot plant, which opened in August near Detroit, expects to produce 2 million coextruded, high density polyethylene fuel tanks by 2000.

The plant opened to take advantage of tremendous growth in plastic under-the-hood components, Solvay President Norman Johnston said in a Feb. 26 interview at the Society of Automotive Engineers International Congress and Exposition in Detroit. Plastic fuel tanks represent the largest area for growth, he said.

``We are not far from the time when the Big Three will have plastic fuel tanks in all their cars and light trucks,'' Johnston said. ``Whenever new vehicles go into production, carmakers are making the change to plastic fuel systems. It's only going to increase.''

The Adrian plant is getting some of that business. The plant recently was awarded a contract to produce six-layer HDPE fuel systems for Chrysler Corp.'s LH-series midsized cars. This year, Chrysler plans to produce an estimated 200,000 LH vehicles, which include the Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision and Chrysler Concorde.

The plant also has begun making plastic fuel systems for the 1997 Dodge Dakota pickup trucks. The company plans to ship nearly 150,000 plastic fuel systems on a just-in-time basis to Chrysler's Warren, Mich., assembly plant.

The fuel systems include a thermoplastic fuel tank, fuel lines, fuel pump, fuel-level sensor and rollover valve. Each coextruded fuel tank uses inner layers of recycled HDPE, an ethylene vinyl alcohol barrier and several layers of virgin HDPE.

This summer, the plant also will make as many as 200,000 blow molded and lost-core injection molded air-intake manifolds for the Chrysler LH models. The manifolds are made of 35 percent glass-reinforced nylon.

The plant, which has 250 workers, recently added blow molding and injection molding equipment to increase its capacity. The machinery includes six double-sided blow molding machines and two injection presses with clamping forces as high as 1,500 tons.

Plant production is run on four continuous coextrusion lines and one fusible-core injection molding line. Johnston predicted that 60 percent of North American vehicles will have thermoplastic fuel tanks by 2000. The tanks meet upcoming Clean Air Act requirements for vapor recovery, resist corrosion and limit hydrocarbon emissions, Johnston said.

Solvay of Troy, Mich., supplies more than 35 percent of fuel tanks in production in North America. The firm also has plants in South Bend, Ind.; Blenheim, Ontario; and Puebla, Mexico.

The firm is a unit of Brussels, Belgium-based Solvay SA.