Polymers May Keep Ceramic Car Engines Revving

The ceramic automobile engine is one of those advances that always seems five years away. Such engines would be far lighter than today's motors, and the ability of ceramics to withstand heat means they wouldn't require power-robbing cooling systems. So they should produce big boosts in performance and efficiency. But development has been stalled because today's oils don't work effectively with ceramics, especially given the engine's high operating temperatures--up to 1,800F.

Now, Virginia Polytechnic Institute engineer Michael J. Furey and Polish engineer Czeslaw Kajdas have developed organic molecules that may overcome this problem. In a process called tribopolymerization, high temperatures, combined with friction against ceramic surfaces, cause the molecules to form polymers, creating a slippery film on the engine's moving parts. As long as the molecules are resupplied, the film, which wears away, is constantly replenished. In experiments at Virginia Tech, the polymers reduced wear by up to 98%, compared with more conventional lubricants.