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Nikasil was introduced by Mahle in 1967, initially developed to allow rotary engine apex seals (NSU Ro 80 and Mercedes C111) to work directly against the aluminium housing. This coating allowed aluminium cylinders and pistons to work directly against each other with low wear and friction. Unlike other methods, including cast iron cylinder liners, Nikasil allowed very large cylinder bores with tight tolerances and thus allowed existing engine designs to be expanded easily. The aluminium cylinders also gave a much better heat conductivity than cast iron liners, an important attribute for a high-output engine. The coating was further developed by US Chrome Corporation in the United States in the early 1990s (under the trade name of "Nicom"), as a replacement for hard-chrome plated cylinder bores for Mercury Marine Racing, Kohler Engines, and as a repair replacement for factory-chromed snowmobiles, dirt bikes, ATVs, watercraft and automotive V8 liners/bores.
Porsche started using this on the 1970 917 race car, and later on the 1973 911 RS. Porsche also used it on production cars, but for a short time switched to Alusil due to cost savings for their base 911. Nikasil cylinders were always used for the 911 Turbo and RS models. Nikasil coated aluminium cylinders allowed Porsche to build air-cooled engines that had the highest specific output of any engine of their time. Nikasil is still used in today's 911s.
Nikasil was very popular in the 1990s. It was used by companies such as Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Jaguar Cars and Moto Guzzi in their new engine families. However, the sulfur found in much of the world's low-quality gasoline caused some Nikasil cylinders to break down over time, causing costly engine failures.
Nikasil or similar coatings under other trademarks are also still widely used in racing engines, including those used in Formula One and ChampCar. Suzuki currently uses a race-proven nickel phosphorus-silicon-carbide proprietary coating trademarked SCEM (Suzuki Composite Electro-chemical Material) to maximize cylinder size and improve heat dissipation, e.g., on the engine of the Suzuki TL1000S, V-Strom 650, TU250X and Hayabusa motorcycles.
Nikasil is short for Nickel Silicon Carbide. Silicon carbide is a very hard ceramic (much harder than steel) that can be dissolved in nickel. The nickel solution can then be electroplated onto the aluminium cylinder bore. The piston rings will then rub off the exposed nickel, leaving a very hard layer of silicon carbide to protect the aluminium piston from direct contact with the aluminium cylinder. With this setup, the engine tolerances can be much tighter for better performance. The cylinder must be re-plated after it is re-bored, but Nikasil is extremely durable, so the cylinder does not need to be reworked as often as an iron or chrome cylinder.