A new high-strength aluminum-silicon alloy developed at
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.,
promises to lower engine emissions and could improve gas
mileage in cars, boats and recreational vehicles. The new
alloy, co-invented by Jonathan Lee, a NASA structural
materials engineer, was originally developed for the
automotive industry.

Although most Americans associate NASA with space flight, one
of the space agency’s missions is to share its cutting-edge
technologies with U.S. industry. “Partnerships with U.S
industries are the main way NASA transfers these technologies
to the public,” explains Vernotto McMillan, deputy manager of
Marshall’s Technology Transfer Department.

Lee and co-inventor PoShou Chen, a scientist with Morgan
Research Corp., began work on the new alloy seven years ago
when a major automobile manufacturer approached NASA about
developing a strong and low-cost aluminum alloy for use in a
piston redesign that would lower engine emissions.

Lee and Chen came up with MSFC-398, a wear-resistant alloy
that exhibits dramatic strength at temperatures as high as
500 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, when tested at 600
degrees Fahrenheit, it is three to four times stronger than
conventional cast aluminum alloys. The new metal also can be
produced at a projected cost of less than $1 per pound.

NASA High-Strength Alloy can be poured as a molten metal into
conventional steel molds or die-casting molds to create
specially shaped parts — a cost-saving advantage over
machining of parts.

“The new alloy is ideal for high-temperature cast components
used in engines such as pistons, connecting rods, actuators,
brake calipers and rotors,” said Lee. This makes NASA High-
Strength Alloy a good choice for high-temperature
applications in the automotive, aerospace, marine and
recreational vehicle industries.

“Increasingly stringent exhaust-emission regulations for
internal combustion engines have forced piston designers into
a redesign to lower emissions,” said Lee. “The current
modification is to reduce the piston’s crevice volume — the
air gap between the piston wall and the cylinder bore — by
moving the top piston ring closer to the top of the piston

Such a modification promises to be a key to reaching the goal
of making today’s high-performance gasoline and diesel
engines meet tougher exhaust standards.

To accomplish this, engine makers needed a strong, low-cost
alloy that would allow them to make the piston-crown depth
thinner — yet still curb piston failure caused by high work
and heat loads.

“NASA High-Strength Alloy offers greater wear resistance and
surface hardness which enables manufacturers to use less
material, thus reducing the part’s weight and cost and
improving gas mileage, engine performance and engine
durability,” said Lee.

Two U.S. patents have been awarded with other domestic
patents pending. An international patent is pending for the
technology as well, said Sammy Nabors, the commercialization
lead in the Marshall Technology Transfer Department. Through
NASA’s Technology Transfer program, non-exclusive licenses to
develop new products from the improved alloy have been
awarded to Advanced Materials Technology Inc., Manitowoc,
Wis.; Swan Metal Composites Inc., Woodinville, Wash.; and Eck
Industries, Manitowoc, Wis.

NASA is continuing to seek U.S. industries as partners to
further transfer this technology to the public and private