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The Big Three automakers will spend $20 million to jointly develop a new paint process that would put a sturdy shine on new cars while cutting paint-shop pollution by half.

Ford, Chrysler and General Motors will build a paint facility at a Ford plant in Wixom, Mich., to work on perfecting the use of "powder paint" for the clearcoat layer of car finishes. The clearcoat is the top, transparent coat in a multilayer car or truck finish.Conventional automotive clear-coat paints consist of resins carried in a petroleum solvent base. They are sprayed on an automobile and baked to a hard, glossy finish.

During the spraying process, solvents and thinners evaporate, releasing volatile organic com-pounds that can pollute work areas and outside air if they aren't captured. Additional, smaller amounts of pollutants are released in the baking ovens and incinerated.

With powder paint, powdered dry resins are electrically charged and blown onto car surfaces. The electrical charge makes them stick. Then they are baked.

Powder paints were tried by several manufacturers in the early 1980s, but the process was abandoned because the finishes deteriorated, said Tom Meschievitz, director of paint engineering for General Motors North American Operations.

With the test facility at Wixom, the Big Three will work with ABB Paint Finishing to develop powder painting processes that can deliver consistent finishes.

"The technology requires development in a production-scale pilot facility before the process is reliable enough to be used commercially," said John Young, executive engineer for body and assembly paint operations at Ford. "We have to know it will work when we build 1,000 vehicles a day, free of defects, while maintaining a uniform, smooth, high-gloss finish."

A big part of the challenge is to efficiently produce paint finishes that rival those of Japanese carmakers. "They use a less environmentally friendly system," Meschievitz said.

Japanese carmakers produce paint finishes that U.S. automakers use as benchmarks as they strive to improve paint quality.

Paint engineers say the U.S. automakers have reduced paint-shop emissions by 80 percent in the past 20 years. The goal of the joint project, which is under the umbrella of the U.S. Council for Automotive Research, is to reduce emissions another 50 percent.

Young said the consortium hopes to succeed with a powder paint clearcoat process by the late 1990s.