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What Feds' focus on lightweight metals means for autos

The White House on Tuesday plans to announce a $140 million project meant to speed the development of new lightweight metals and other materials—a program that could translate into more fuel-efficient cars and aircraft.

The new Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation (LM3I) Institute is expected to generate as many as 10,000 jobs—but the payoff could be significantly greater long term if it yields a more competitive U.S. manufacturing base.

(Read more: Mexico climbing ranks as auto exporter)

It's one of three manufacturing institutes that President Barack Obama introduced during his State of the Union speech last month.

The New 2015 Ford F-150 Platinum model in red and and LXT in grey at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto on February 16, 2014.
David Cooper | Toronto Star | Getty Images
The New 2015 Ford F-150 Platinum model in red and and LXT in grey at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto on February 16, 2014.

Based near Detroit, the project will receive $70 million in federal funding with a matching $70 million coming from other sources. A total of 34 companies, nine universities and 17 other groups—including Alcoa, General Electric, Honda, the universities of Michigan and Kentucky, and the American Foundry Society—will participate. The project will "focus on lightweight and modern metals manufacturing," according to the White House.

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There's a growing interest in the use of aluminum, titanium and high-strength steel as well as more exotic materials such as carbon fiber, in the aerospace and automotive industries. The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for example, is produced largely out of carbon fiber.

Ford, meanwhile, will shave as much as 700 pounds off the 2015 remake of its F-150 pickup by switching the body from steel to aluminum—adding perhaps 5 mpg in the process.

(Read more: February auto sales start to thaw)

There could be a major payoff for the military too.

The White House said the project could "strengthen our defense capabilities, like enabling the creation of armored vehicles strong enough to withstand a roadside bomb but light enough for helicopter-transport."

Obama announced plans for three new manufacturing institutes during his State of the Union address last month. The first, the Next Generation Power Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute, will be based in Raleigh, N.C., and be backed by the Department of Energy. Another, focusing on digital manufacturing and design technologies, will be located in Chicago.

Eventually, there could be as many as 45 of these manufacturing institutes. The administration is still waiting for Congress to approve funding, but the proposal has garnered some rare bipartisan support in both houses.

Supporters include Sens. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, and Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, as well as U.S. Reps. Tom Reed, a New York Republican, and Joe Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureauor at thedetroitbureau.com.

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