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AUBURN HILLS, MICH. — Walbro Automotive Corp. has continued its steady rise in supplying thermoplastic fuel tanks by opening a new plant in Cacapava, Brazil, and starting U.S. production of a unique integrated fuel system.

In Brazil, tank production began in November at a 109,000-square-foot plant. The blow molding plant, operated by Walbro affiliate Walbro South America Ltda., is supplying monolayer fuel tanks to Volkswagen do Brasil for VW's new three-door Gol coupe. Tanks for several unspecified General Motors Corp. models also will be produced at the plant. The tanks are coextruded from high density polyethylene.

The plant is expected to make about 350,000 tanks per year, according to South American sources.

The plant, which has 85 workers, has installed two Krupp Kautex double-shuttle blow molding machines. Each machine, which can run two molds simultaneously, has a capacity of more than a half-million tanks a year, the sources said.

The machines are capable of shifting production to multilayer tanks, said Hans Schwochert, Walbro vice president for blow molded products. Volkswagen is considering such a switch to satisfy future emissions requirements in South America and elsewhere.

Multilayer tanks typically consist of six layers that include an inner and outer skin of HDPE; an inner shell of HDPE regrind; a barrier of ethylene vinyl alcohol that prevents the permeation of hydrocarbons; and two adhesive skins that buffer the EVOH layer. They are used extensively in the United States to protect against hydrocarbon emissions.

The Brazil plant also will launch production of fuel filler pipes by May, Schwochert said.

Auburn Hills-based Walbro also will make a decision within the year whether to open another multilayer fuel-tank plant in Argentina, Schwochert said. The decision will be based on market conditions and capacity at the Cacapava plant.

Meanwhile, Walbro also will begin production in July of a complete fuel storage and delivery system for Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge Durango sports utility vehicle. The contract represents one of the first integrated fuel systems built for an automaker, said Richard Burks, Walbro vice president of sales and marketing.

``We're one of the few suppliers that manufactures all the parts for a fuel delivery and storage system,'' Burks said. ``That's put us in a good position to ship Chrysler a complete system that only requires them to assemble the system under the vehicle's chassis.''

The fuel system consists of plastic, coextruded fuel tanks and fuel pumps, fuel modules that connect the pump to a reservoir and level sensor, and emission control valves. Walbro has other contracts pending with automakers to supply similar systems.

The fuel system will be built at Walbro's new, 150,000-square-foot Meriden, Conn., plant, located next to an existing, 112,000-square-foot Walbro facility. The new plant, which opens this summer, primarily will produce multilayer fuel tanks but also will make fuel rails.

Equipment at the new Meriden plant includes two Krupp double-shuttle blow molding machines. The plant has the capacity to produce 1 million tanks a year.

Chrysler has said that it expects to make 120,000 Durangos during 1998 — the vehicle's first model year — and escalate production to 200,000 vehicles in subsequent years.

The new plants, as well as a new, 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Ossian, Ind., are part of Walbro's aggressive expansion into fuel tanks. The company also purchased the fuel tank division of Oslo, Norway-based Dyno Industrier AS in 1995. The purchase included six European tank plants.

In addition, a new, 110,000-square-foot blow molding plant opened in Lokeren, Belgium, in late 1997 to mold fuel tanks. Walbro also is building a $15 million fuel tank blow molding plant in Deeside, Wales, that is scheduled to open in January 1998.

The company, which made 2 million plastic tanks in 1996, anticipates its worldwide production to reach 6.5 million units by the year 2000. The market is primarily driven by the tank's weight savings and noncorrosive abilities.

``We're well-prepared to capture more of this business, especially in multilayer tanks,'' Burks said. ``They're now becoming the standard in the industry because of emissions requirements.''

In other news, Walbro is opening a $20 million European Technology Center in Rastatt, Germany, to be completed in early 1998. The 30,000-square-foot center will conduct product testing and validation of fuel storage and delivery systems. The engineering center is Walbro's first outside of North America. Other centers are located in Caro and Auburn Hills, Mich.

Plastics News correspondent Sandra Mara Costa contributed to this article.