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DETROIT — Alfmeier Corp. is launching a proprietary pumping system for plastic fuel tanks in North America that the company says could reach sales of 5 million units by 2000.

The German company hopes its venturi pump will become a standard feature in automotive fuel systems. The pump, which is attached to a reservoir bottle, keeps fuel from becoming trapped in remote fuel-tank pockets and stalling an engine.

Alfmeier is banking on widespread use of the injection molded pump, so it can pursue plans to double its 30,000-square-foot Greenville, S.C., plant within the next two years. The plant, which makes other fuel-system components and automotive valves, now uses four injection presses with clamping forces of 80-200 tons. Alfmeier also recently opened a sales and engineering center in Troy, Mich.

The pumping system mainly is needed for fuel tanks that are molded into unusual shapes to fit the smaller contours of many rear underbody designs, Sam Konduros, executive vice president, said in an interview at the Society of Automotive Engineers International Congress and Exposition, held Feb. 24-27 in Detroit.

``Because space is limited, plastic fuel tanks are frequently molded at some sharp angles to use available space,'' he said. ``That creates a problem with fuel flowing to the engine. It gave us an opportunity to find a solution.''

The thermoplastic pump features as many as six sets of acetal feeder lines that pump fuel through a connector to the reservoir. Each supply and return line can be as long as 48 inches, but they frequently range between 18 and 24 inches, depending on vehicle design, Konduros said.

The pump would replace a second fuel-sender unit, necessary to keep fuel flowing for oblong-shaped tanks, for about 10 percent of the cost, he said.

The market for plastic fuel tanks in North America is growing quickly because of new emissions regulations that will take effect in 1998. Carmakers view plastic tanks as having less fuel and vapor permeation than steel tanks.

Alfmeier estimates that 60 percent of North American vehicles will have plastic fuel tanks by 1998, said Michael Schweikert, engineering director.

The company, a subsidiary of Alfmeier Prazision of Treuchtlingen, Germany, first developed the venturi pump for use on Audi luxury vehicles in Europe.

The pumps now are being used by both BMW of North America Inc. and Mercedes-Benz AG, Konduros said. Alfmeier is talking both to Tier 1 suppliers and original equipment manufacturers about adding the pump to fuel tanks as part of a fuel-management system.