Chrome, that onetime ubiquitous detailing material with the come-hither glint, is making a comeback, if not in its original form.
“The chrome look is back,” said Jay Baron, chairman and chief executive of the Center for Automotive Research, in a telephone interview. “The chroming process does not appear to be back.”
Around windows, headlights and interior trim, automakers are using materials that mimic chrome but save weight and expense. Now, a development in the world of nanotechnology could help car owners enjoy a chromelike luster longer without the environmental hazards of chrome plating, which can leave behind toxic waste.
The chemical process, developed by a cement scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, forms a tiny layer of glass up to 500 times thinner than a human hair. The coating is applied on aluminum, protecting it from scratches and the dulling effects of oxidation.
The scientist, Hamlin Jennings, an adjunct professor in the university’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, explained the connection between his work with cement and the new chroming process. The active ingredient in portland cement, the most commonly used form of cement in the world, is calcium silicate hydrate, he said. And like other silicates, cement is essentially a type of glass.
About 15 years ago, Mr. Jennings came across a silicate that would prolong the look of polished aluminum. The application process, however, took years to perfect.
“Putting a glass on a metal is not an easy thing to do,” Mr. Jennings said in an interview. “It’s incredibly transparent, and it’s hard and scratch-resistant compared with an organic polymer coating.”
His company, Metal Coating Technologies, is in advanced talks with automotive suppliers to use the material for door handles, window trim, grilles and other shiny metal accents.
The material’s prime market has been for solar concentrators, whose polished mirrors must preserve a high shine to gather the sun’s energy, as well as exterior window treatments for buildings.
“It is the only product of its kind in the States that we know of,” said Dan Stoettner, president and chief operating officer of the Aluminum Coil Anodizing Corporation, a licensee of the material. “It seals it, and then it protects it from the elements.” The material is applied directly to anodized aluminum and chemically fuses to the metal.
Mr. Jennings said the material could also bring out the shine of and protect aluminum wheels, which tend to require long sessions of grooming after brake dust accumulates. Up to 70 percent of the wheels in North America are made of aluminum, according to data from the Center for Automotive Research. The center projects that 32 million aluminum wheels will be produced this year.
“If this coating could give it a sheen that you can’t get otherwise, then that clearly would have some value,” Mr. Baron said.
Plastics, too, are more easily chromed than in the past, and can withstand years of wear. But not all consumers are fooled.
Luxury automakers prefer to use metals like aluminum or stainless steel for surfaces that the consumer touches. Elsewhere, especially on vehicles that are more price-competitive, a shiny plastic is more commonly enlisted.
“For parts that you don’t touch, they can make those out of plastic and they still look like steel,” Mr. Baron said. “The plastics industry has done a tremendous job of developing plastics that look terrific.”