Car companies like Ford Motor Company aren't above using gimmicks if it will get reporters to notice something they're doing.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
This one worked.
On Valentine's Day, I got a Fed Ex package from Ford. Inside it was an "aerated" chocolate bar and a bag of "aerated" Hershey's kisses. It's the kind of chocolate with air bubbles, making the chocolate lighter, with fewer calories. (Unless you eat seven times as much of them as the regular chocolates. Not that I would ever do something like that.)
There was also a press release, explaining that Ford is using a similar process with plastic, aerating it to make it lighter and cheaper.
Intrigued, I ate half of the candy bar. Or, I ate half the candy bar, and became intrigued. Not sure which.
Then I called Ellen Lee, a plastics researcher at Ford, who told me:
By using a 'supercritical' fluid - just a gas at high temperature and pressure - we're able to mix that with our plastics. It creates a foam, kind of like when you have a bottle that has carbon dioxide dissolved into the liquid, it's at high pressure.
Fascinating. [munch, munch] Tell me more.
And when we inject the material into the mold to form the part, the lower pressure is like having that pop bottle, you get all these bubbles coming out. So we freeze the material at the same time these bubbles are forming, so we're able to make a fully-formed part, but with a lot of these tiny voids trapped in.
Lee says this makes a lighter plastic, but it's just as strong as a solid plastic part. Car companies want to make their vehicles as light as possible because of the fuel economy benefits.
And because the part uses less material, it's also cheaper.
Ford purchased the technology rights for the process from Trexel, and asked some of its suppliers to install the equipment necessary to make the aerated parts.
Currently, parts of the dashboard on the Escape use this new aerated plastic. Lee says Ford would like to use more of it, in more of its vehicles. The plastic doesn't look as nice as regular plastics, so for now, it will be used only in parts that the consumer doesn't see - inside the doors, for example.
Now, imagine if Ford built an entire car out of nothing but chocolate, the kind of positive coverage they would get.