The Face of Automotive Gaskets Changes with Advances
February 12, 2014
When it comes to the earliest history of the automobile, many think of the Ford Model T. However, the history of self-propelled vehicles extends back much farther. The earliest models ran on steam power and date back to as early as 1770, with the first U.S. automobile patent issued in 1789. Of course, cars have changed a great deal since then and are still ever-evolving today. One way that the changes in automobiles can be measured is by looking at the evolution of individual parts over time. In particular, gaskets have played an essential role in cars. The head gasket in a vehicle is the most critical sealing application in an engine, with the task of ensuring maximum compression and avoiding the leakage of engine oil or coolant into the cylinders. The design and fabrication of gaskets have changed to keep pace with the times. Technological advances have made automobile gaskets safer and more effective than ever. Given the important role they play, efficient and robust gaskets ensure the car's safe operation and avoid costly maintenance that occurs for consumers when gaskets fail. Anyone who remembers long family road trips prior to the 1980s were familiar with being often halted because the car would break down. Travelers encountered gasket wear that created symptoms like blue exhaust smoke, which indicates oil burning, or white exhaust smoke, which points to coolant burning. If the damage was severe enough, it led to a "blown" gasket, which, besides immobilizing the vehicle, resulted in severe and expensive engine damage. Older composite gaskets, composed of asbestos or graphite, were often more prone to blow-outs. Asbestos gaskets also created concerns about health because of the toxic nature of the substance. Gaskets made from asbestos are becoming increasingly rare, with some states beginning to ban their use in vehicles altogether. Improvements and Breakthroughs Drive Performance One of the improvements that have been made to gaskets over the years is the development of inner compression and outer guiding rings. An inner compression ring allows for higher flange compression while preventing gasket failure. An outer guiding ring allows for easier installation and serves as a minor compression inhibitor. Outer guiding rings can also be modified on double jacketed gaskets to show when the first seal has failed. This is achieved using alkylation paint, along with an inner lining system. The materials used in gasket fabrication have advanced a great deal. For instance, silicone rubber has become a preferred material for gaskets and seals. Extensively used in the U.S. space program, it has a proven track record of reliably performing in extreme conditions. Silicone remains flexible and resilient under high temperatures and pressures and chemical exposure. It is easily processed, and its price is low. Unlike many exotic polymers, silicone is not hard to find and is, in fact, the fastest-growing segment of elastomers. Many companies and organizations are leading the way when it comes to finding new technologies and substances to push the boundaries of automotive gaskets. Until recently rubber gaskets were the norm, but material technology advances are producing more highly engineered materials that provide unique sealing solutions and eliminate the need for solid rubber press-in-place (PIP) gaskets. These high-performance compression gaskets are dispensed directly onto automotive parts. They are composed of ultra-lightweight materials and help achieve goals in fuel efficiency and sustainability. By removing the PIP process, the risk of displacement of the gasket during compression is minimized, which results in greater reliability and lower risk of leakages. New gasket production processes cure the dispensed liquid material with an ultraviolet light within seconds after application. The results are gaskets with remarkable consistency; uniform solid compression gaskets with perfect start and stop points and constant heights are achieved every time. Another advancement is in the area of liquid sealants, which provide highly durable gasket solutions for engines and transmissions. A fully automated process can be employed to create these liquid gaskets, reducing material costs by up to 95 percent compared to conventional preformed products. These types of materials can be engineered to adhere to almost any kind of substance, including metals and plastics. These innovations reduce process costs for manufacturers, increase productivity, and enhance the performance of gasketed products. They both are excellent examples of how continual advancements in technology create major enhancements in automotive gaskets. An Evolving Component Seals its Future Vitality While the demand for gaskets and seals dipped painfully during 2008 and 2009, it is poised for a strong recovery. Global Industry Analysts Inc. (GIA) released a comprehensive report indicating that despite a temporary deceleration in growth, the gasket market is ready to gain steady momentum in the short to medium term. The continuing post-recession resurgence in production is expected to continue across key end-use industries. Along with general economic recovery, stricter environmental regulations and developing technology will increase demand for sustainability and new manufacturing processes for gaskets. The report published by the GIA estimates that the global gaskets and seals market should reach $27.5 billion by 2015. With a recovering market and burgeoning new technologies, the field of automotive gaskets continues to grow and appears to be poised for a bright future. Made from materials as diverse as cork sheet to silicone and Teflon, gaskets will maintain their position as a vital auto component. Improvements in gaskets will continue to be made with greater cost effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability in mind for years to come. Peter Taraborelli is president of Mercer Gasket & Shim.