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April 2, 2010

News & Features

Plastic has taken over modern cars, and one pioneer hopes the engine is next

New York Times News Service

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(Illustration by Barry Gibbons)

When the Boeing 787 Dreamliner goes into commercial service this year, travelers will be transported on wings and fuselages made of advanced composite plastics.

This raises a logical question: If modern plastics are sturdy enough for 600-mph airplanes, why are car engines still made by pouring molten metal into molds, a 6,000-year-old process?

That inequity is especially grating to Matti Holtzberg, a New Jersey engineer who has spent 30 years trying to send iron and aluminum engines the way of the woolly mammoth. The plastic powerplants he designed and built in the 1980s proved tough enough to race in professional motorsports.

But Holtzberg failed to persuade carmakers that the benefits -- major weight and cost savings -- were worth the risk. So, like the long-lasting battery and the driveway-ready hydrogen fuel cell, plastic engines remain just beyond fruition.

What keeps Holtzberg going is the occasional ally he converts to his way of thinking. Recently he formed a strategic partnership with the Huntsman Corp. of Houston, a global chemical company with a proven record as an auto industry supplier. The alliance may bring the clout needed to move plastic engines out of the laboratory and onto the proving grounds, where auto engineers are searching for ways to meet the next round of fuel-economy targets.

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Engineer Matti Holtzberg has spent 30 years working to convince automakers to give plastic engines a shot.

A history of plastic
Holtzberg is not the first pioneer to be frustrated in an attempt to move plastics to the mainstream. Henry Ford was an early champion of plastics, commissioning projects to explore alternative materials for car bodies in an era when steel was in short supply because of the military buildup for World War II. Ford also was drawn to plastic for its cost and weight savings as well as its corrosion resistance.
Six years after Ford died, his dream was finally realized. The first of more than 1.5 million Chevrolet Corvettes with fiberglass body panels began rolling off General Motors assembly lines in 1953.

Since then, cars have benefited from a steadily rising plastic content. The typical North American-made vehicle now contains more than 300 pounds of the stuff, according to the federal Energy Department, making it the second-largest material type behind steel. But major powertrain structural components -- engine blocks and cylinder heads, transmission cases and axle housings -- continue to be iron or aluminum castings because of the heat and stress they must endure.

Holtzberg set out to prove that his plastic powerplant could take the same stress loads by campaigning a Lola racecar in the International Motor Sports Association's Camel Lights series in 1984-85. The only mishap during a half-dozen races was the failure of a connecting rod, a part purchased from an outside supplier.

In the media
  • • Shortly after Matti Holtzberg's first plastic engine successfully ran in 1980, an article in Automotive Industries, a trade magazine, inquired: "What ... a Plastic Engine?"
  • • Two years later, Popular Science featured a Polimotor -- which used plastic for the block, piston skirts, connecting rods, oil pan and most of the cylinder head -- on its cover.

Touting the benefits
Now, Holtzberg views his composite-casting technology as the next logical step in the evolution of the automobile -- from wood, iron and steel to aluminum, magnesium and advanced plastics. He says his materials could trim an aluminum engine's weight by 30 percent to 35 percent, but that's not its sole appeal.

"After 25 years of effort, major foundries are finally inquiring about my process," he says. "Witnessing the demise of steel making and iron casting in America and experiencing the loss of a significant share of their business to Asia and India, they're interested in advanced casting processes that can trim both material and machining costs."

Before internal combustion is superseded by electric propulsion, there's time left for a few more technological breakthroughs. Holtzberg and his Huntsman partners are betting that composite-plastic engines make the cut.

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