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Notes From the Road

Working with Metals: Exotics and Composites
By Matt Carlson /

At Home with Titanium
So is there a future for titanium valves in your hot rod? Maybe. They are probably available for your particular application, but for a price. As tough as titanium may be, it still lacks the strength and durability of the old standard steel valve. Titanium has a tendency to deform where it comes into hard contact with other metals, and it galls, or sticks, when mating parts must continually slide across it.

In a racing engine that is not expected to last more than a few races, these drawbacks are entirely acceptable. In an engine that is designed to last a few hundred thousand miles, they could begin to cause problems. A material like titanium is best suited for racing applications where extreme light weight and strength are priorities over cost and longevity.

Some other exotic metals that are used in aerospace are grouped in a category called super alloys. Super alloys are designed for high strength under high heat, such as what may be encountered in a jet or rocket engine. These materials are rarely necessary in automotive applications that are not involved in professional racing. They are typically heavy, and are designed to offer maximum strength under very high temperatures.

Composite Composition
As for exotic non-metals or composite materials, one of the most popular aerospace composite materials to make it into consumer use is carbon fiber. Carbon fiber fabric is infused with an epoxy that hardens much like fiberglass – it is not carbon fiber alone that makes the material.

True aircraft carbon fiber composites are designed with high heat and strength in mind. These materials are therefore usually made in special ovens to heat and cure the epoxy chemicals. Most consumer-grade carbon fiber products are made with an epoxy that cures or dries in the air. Once again, this kind of material can be quite expensive, and the weight savings and strength are often not worth the expense.

Its appearance in direct sunlight has to be one of the greatest benefits of using carbon fiber on a non-competition vehicle. It's such a nice three-dimensional, moves-when-you-look-at-it, shiny-but-not-shiny, mystery material; just the thing to show off to the friends on a Saturday.

Should you buy into the high tech exotic material craze? Maybe. If you have the money, and you like to have the most advanced things on the block, then these materials are for you. However, if you are just a regular day-to-day person, and you need the best value for your money, there are probably more reasonable things to buy for your restoration projects. Sometimes the tried-and-true methods are more reliable, and easier to service, than the latest technologies. Leave the exotic materials for the next mission—the one to the moon.

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