EVANSTON, Ill., Oct. 12 -- Ford Motor Co., The Boeing Co. and Northwestern University have big plans to work together to make the future very small. The two companies and the university are in final negotiations to form a new alliance to research commercial applications of nanotechnology, the branch of engineering that deals with things smaller than 100 nm and at the molecular level. Ford and Boeing will each provide financial support for three years, and Northwestern’s Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science will provide administration of the alliance and office space for a full-time Ford employee who will serve as the industrial alliance coordinator.
A nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter, and nanotechnology involves the manipulation of atoms as raw materials, which could lead to dramatic advances in medicine, electronics and manufacturing. The agreement, which is expected to be finalized later this month, is designed to pave the way for future advancements in transportation, including cars that could someday be powered by clean hydrogen rather than gasoline. While the initial focus of the research will be nanotechnology, other potential research areas include specialty metals, thermal materials, coatings and sensors.
For automobiles, nanotechnology could help Ford find ways to boost power in hybrid vehicle batteries using nanoscale materials that create more energy from traditional materials today. In the hydrogen arena, officials say, nanotechnology could help researchers develop higher capacity hydrogen storage tanks for cars, which would help make the fuel more practical for the future.
The new alliance between Ford and Boeing will be the latest development in a 10-year relationship that has resulted in improved products for both companies. The results of some of their past partnerships include: human factors modeling, which allows engineers to research ways to provide more user-friendly interiors for cars and planes; aluminum bonding techniques used in the production of the Ford GT supercar and rapid prototyping, which allows designs created in a computer to be "printed" three-dimensionally by a computer operated laser that cures a photosensitive resin, creating a prototype part without the need for expensive tooling. This means Ford can cast parts as large as an engine block in days instead of months or weeks.
For Northwestern, the alliance is seen as an opportunity for students and faculty to develop even closer working relationships with businesses for technology sharing, and it represents a unique learning experience for students. According to the university, Northwestern has been one of the early leaders in the field of nanoscience and home to one of the first nanotechnology centers in the country. The study of nanomaterials and technology can be found within many of Northwestern's departments and schools, from engineering and chemistry to biology and medicine.
The intent to form this new alliance was announced at the same time that Ford and Northwestern dedicated a new $30 million engineering center on the school's campus near Chicago. Ford provided a $10 million grant to build the new Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center as part of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science facility.