General Motors Corp. is throwing its market strength into ``smart material'' technology in hopes of advancing products such as shape memory polymers to the point they could be used on car fenders and doors.
Just imagine the day, said Alan Taub, executive director of GM Research and Development, when heat could be applied to a dented fender and the plastic would pop back to its normal shape.
While smart polymers are not ready to go onto cars yet, the carmaker expects that its interest can help drive its own understanding of the materials, prompt auto suppliers into researching what they can do with them and provide a solid business case for material suppliers to ramp up production to the level the auto industry will need.
``The auto industry's research challenge is usually to keep our eyes on materials and to cherry-pick and tweak the best ones,'' Taub said during a March 7 news conference at GM's Warren research and development center.
The Detroit automaker is eyeing two types of smart materials for use in the industry - metal and plastics. Both have existed for decades, with metal alloys first used more than 50 years ago. Each has properties that allow it to be bent, twisted or flexed, but then return to its original shape once heat, a magnetic field or a low-voltage electrical current is applied.
The medical industry uses the polymers in applications such as stents and internal stitches. Toymakers and the sports industry have used metal alloys. Cornerstone Research Group Inc. of Dayton, Ohio has offered its Veriflex shape memory polymer in the United States since 1984.
Jan Aase, director of the vehicle development research laboratory for GM, expects the metal alloy to come into the auto industry first, where it will be used in cables and small motors.
The alloy is used in a thin wire about the size of a human hair. It costs about $1.50 per meter, compared with $5-$6 for a system complete with a motor and cables, Taub said. The total system offers a 20 percent price reduction, while reducing the load on the 12-volt car battery and decreasing weight and product size.
GM showed off potential applications using the wire, including a grab handle that automatically drops down for easier use; louvers that can open and close depending on the temperature, to improve engine performance in hot and cold weather; and a door that will open at the press of a button. The company expects to find more uses in the future, and potentially could have something ready to go on a car before 2012.
``I'm limited not by the actuators and motors, but by my imagination,'' Taub said. ``All of a sudden, I can afford to do things that I couldn't afford to do before.''
The polymers are not as advanced as the metal alloy, but still show significant promise, said researcher Alan Browne. Shape memory polymers are available in both thermoset and thermoplastic blends, opening up potential uses on everything from car hoods to bumper fascia and under-the-hood parts.
There are smaller possible uses as well, he said. A temperature-sensitive plastic on seals or grommets, for instance, could be used to fine-tune a car's handling and ride in hot and cold weather.
Taub expects that GM will have to reach out to new material suppliers as it begins to find uses for smart materials, but by alerting existing auto parts makers now, they should be able to transition smoothly into finding the right ways to use the polymers and alloys.
``We're counting very much on the supply base,'' he said.