FEATS OF CLAY In ceramic engines, the Japanese have taken the lead, but the U.S. still has a chance.
By - Michael Rogers

(FORTUNE Magazine) – THE RACE TO BUILD the ceramic automobile engine is barely beyond the first turn and the Japanese are already leaving U.S. competitors in the dust. A late entry could yet shift the lead: in December, Lanxide Corp., an obscure U.S. company, announced that it had discovered a simple way to make strong industrial ceramics. Though the technique is ingenious and promising, Lanxide's technology has yet to prove itself. The ceramic engine has long captured the imagination of engineers. Because it can run at high temperatures, it does not need a cooling system, and it operates so efficiently that it can get some 40% more miles to the gallon than an all-metal engine. The ultimate ceramic engine would still employ metal parts, but all parts that have to withstand high temperatures, such as pistons, would be ceramic. The so-called advanced ceramics being tested in engines are but distant cousins of teacups; they are nonorganic refined powders such as silicon nitride and aluminum oxide that are baked until they bond. Despite years of research and improvement, parts made from them still tend to fracture. The ceramics are brittle and are weakened by impurities that are costly to eliminate. The Japanese, apparently undeterred by the expense, are forging ahead. In October Nissan introduced a version of the 300ZX sports car with a ceramic turbocharger rotor; it is sold only in Japan. Isuzu last year began making diesel engines with ceramic precombustion chambers, among other parts, and recently said it would be selling an automobile with a true ceramic engine by 1990. Mitsubishi is using some small ceramic parts, and Toyota is producing diesel-engine pistons made partly of ceramics. IN THE U.S. both GM and Ford have ceramic engine projects under way, but neither expects to replace even tiny parts with ceramics for at least two years. ''The question is whether you're getting value for the cost of the parts,'' says David Merrion, general director of engineering at GM's Detroit Diesel Allison division, which has experimented with ceramic parts for truck engines. ''Our experience shows it is too costly.'' Lanxide, based in Newark, Delaware, may have found a solution. The closely held company, backed partly by Alcan Aluminium of Canada, has developed a technique it calls growing ceramic structures. The company oxidizes molten metal at about 1,200 degrees C. with oxygen and proprietary compounds, in effect rusting it thoroughly. The resulting metal oxide is a highly pure ceramic that can be machined. According to Rustum Roy, a pioneer in industrial ) ceramics who heads the Materials Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University and is a consultant to Lanxide, the material is both tough and cheap.

Lanxide says that it has a contract with a U.S. engine manufacturer it won't name to develop a part for testing later this year. Whether the technology will put U.S. automakers back in the race is still unclear; neither General Motors nor Ford has yet had a chance to study it. If the technology doesn't succeed, automakers and scientists agree, ceramics won't be common in U.S. auto engines until the mid- to late-1990s -- after the Japanese have forced Detroit to play catch-up.