The Partnership for Next Generation Vehicles (PNGV) is not a NASA initiative to develop powerful new rockets and spacecraft, even though it may sound like one. PNGV was a partnership established by the Clinton administration between the Federal government and the U.S. Council for Automotive Research to develop technologies that improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions from cars and trucks. More than 20 Federal laboratories from the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Transportation, and Defense; the Environmental Protection Agency; the National Science Foundation; and NASA were all involved in PNGV, in addition to more than 350 automotive suppliers, universities, and small businesses.
In support of this tremendous effort, Jonathan Lee, a materials engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center, worked with a major automobile manufacturer in 1995 to develop a strong aluminum alloy for high temperature applications. The aim was to use the alloy for manufacturing parts for an internal combustion engine, as well as for NASA’s propulsion applications. When funding from PNGV ended, Marshall continued to support the alloy’s development with help from NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program (now the Office of the Chief Technologist). Together with PoShou Chen, a scientist with Morgan Research Corporation, Lee invented a high-strength aluminum alloy called MSFC-398 that, when tested, was three to four times stronger than conventional aluminum alloys at high temperatures.
By the late 1990s, Lee says, NASA’s scientists had successfully developed and patented this technology, which has great potential applications not for just automotive, but also for aerospace, marine, and commercial applications.
After Marshall made the technology available for licensing in 2001, Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. licensed the alloy to cast parts for outboard marine engines (Spinoff 2004 and 2008). By 2005, the alloy had won Marshall’s “Invention of the Year” award, and a year later, the National Federal Laboratory Consortium recognized the alloy with an “Excellence in Technology Transfer” award.
The most recent success of this technology, however, was in 2010. Twin City Fan Companies Ltd. in Minneapolis, Minnesota, licensed the alloy to make impellers (blades and hubs) for safety ventilation fans in rail and road tunnels. “We wanted a high temperature alloy that would have the strength and properties needed for safety fan impellers at very high temperatures. We found the NASA alloy, and upon further investigation, we knew that it was the right path for us,” says Dan Hartlein, executive vice president at Twin City Fan Companies Ltd.
The division of Twin City Fan Companies Ltd. that is marketing the first fans made with the NASA aluminum alloy is Clarage, which is based in Pulaski, Tennessee. However, Michael Barry, president and COO of Twin City Fan Companies Ltd., finds there are broad application possibilities for all of the company’s global brands, including Twin City Fan and Blower and Aerovent. “Twin City Fan is a global American company. It gives us great pride to be able to utilize the special technology created by a technology leader like NASA,” says Barry.
Twin City Fan licensed the NASA alloy with a specific application in mind: tunnel safety fans for the European market, where fans must be able to operate in 752 ˚F for two hours in order to be certified for use. The reason for the high temperature requirement is the fan must be able to operate successfully when there is a fire in a road or rail tunnel. When spinning in one direction, the fan provides clean air to the people inside; when spinning the other direction, it removes the smoke and gasses from the fire.