Nanotechnology and the Automobile

When people think about technologies, they often either think of computers or automobiles. So whenever nanotechnology gets discussed, it always becomes necessary to say how it will impact our automobiles.

The answers arenâ''t very exciting. I recall that the big application that was touted in those heady days after the NNI was launched in 2001 was the use by General Motors of nanoclay-TPO composites in exterior steps for vans resulting in a 7-8% weight saving, a smoother surface and enhanced scratch resistance.

Then you got the more detailed examinations that included nanocomposites in polycarbonate automotive glazing, or nanocomposites for high-barrier plastics for fuel tanks and fuel systems.

The list can go on like this, but you get the pointâ'¿I hope. What weâ''re talking about here is just incremental advances in composite materials. Not particularly exciting, and itâ''s not as if these nanomaterials were specifically engineered for these applications.

But the fascination with the automobile is a strong one, and it has almost become obligatory to mention the car whenever you utter the word â''nanotechnologyâ''.

Along these lines, in the latest issue of Nanotechnology Law & Business they provided a link to an article entitled â''Top Ten Ways Nanotechnology Will Impact Life in the Next Ten Yearsâ''. So, of course, I was intrigued, and sure enough the automobile was included.

What was interesting about how they approached it was not the mention of nanotechnology enabling low-emission automobiles, but using the example of Oxonica and its liquid-based catalyst that reduces emissions for diesel fuels, EnviroxTM.

Whatâ''s interesting about this example is that it has nearly ruined the company. In testing of the Envirox product in diesel engines in Turkey conducted by Petrol Ofisi, the Turkish national oil-and-gas company, the results were disappointing. Oxonica claimed at the time that further tests had to be run, but any way you cut it the future of the Turkish deal looks as though it is finished.

This is not to say nano-enabled fuel-borne catalysts wonâ''t reduce emissions in diesel fuels, but the Oxonica example seems to be a poor one.

But the need to equate nanotechnology to the automobile gets really weird in the hands of futurists. At the recent LA Autoshow designs were submitted for the car that will exist in 2057. Nanotechnology figured prominently with Mercedes-Benz offering up the â''Silver Flowâ'' that will utilize micro-metallic particles that can be rearranged via magnetic fields into any form you choose. Hmmhâ'¿not exactly lighter weight composites for steps on a mini-van.

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