A clever but little-used class of metals developed in research labs in the 1970s may emerge over the next decade to save millions of dollars on America's utility tab.
It may also prove a boon in making everything from computer chips to bicycle frames - and thus has touched off a quiet race between the United States and Japan to develop it.
The material: amorphous metals, alloys produced in thin ribbons that look like movie film.
These peculiar materials were first discovered through a bit of serendipity in the early 1960s. Scientists stumbled on a way to produce metals that, like glass, are made up of a jumbled arrangement of atoms. Most metals consist of atoms linked together in orderly, crystalline patterns.
The result was a family of ''glassy'' metals that were harder, more corrosion-resistant, and easier to magnetize than most conventional alloys. But the high cost of producing them and the tricky task of turning them into products have limited their use to just a few applications, such as in magnetic heads for tape recorders and in tags on some clothing that can activate antitheft devices in stores.
But new manufacturing techniques and the drive for greater energy conservation may move the metal from the specialty area to the broader marketplace. The biggest potential on the horizon lies in reducing power losses in electrical transformers. At least two efforts are under way:
* General Electric Company is in the middle of a three-year, $6.6 million study of the use of amorphous metals in the core of distribution transformers. These are the gray boxes perched like crows' nests on the top of utility poles. Their function is to reduce the high-voltage current in the transmission line to the lower voltages used in the home.
The Electric Power Research Institute, research arm of the utility industry, estimates that if all new distribution transformers used the alloys, some $100 million could be saved each year. GE claims that refitting existing transformers , although unrealistic, would save $600 million a year. The company plans to put 1,000 prototype transformers atop poles over the next two years.
* Westinghouse is working on a two-year, $1.5 million program to use the alloy in large ground-based transformers. Potential savings here, if all were to be replaced: as much as $2 billion a year.
The alloys may also find wider use as a brazing material in items ranging from jet engine components to bike frames. Glassy metals form a better weld than most conventional brazing materials. And they are cheaper to use than some silver-bearing alloys. They are also being eyed as a better way to solder circuits on computer chips.
Nor has the metals' potential been lost on the Japanese. The government has picked them out as a key technology to be developed over the next decade. ''Japan is much more active in developing applications for the metals than the US,'' says Reed Belden, vice-president and general manager of Metglas Products, a division of Allied Corporation, the only US supplier of the metals.
Allied should know. After a 10-year tussle, it recently received a patent on its technology in Japan. But the company is chafing over the threat of foreign competitors selling in the US. It has asked a federal agency that investigates unfair trade practices to block imports from producers in Japan and West Germany , charging infringement on its US patents. A ruling is expected in May.
Regardless of who supplies the metals, there won't likely be any quick fortunes made. One reason is cost: The metals are still three to five times as expensive as the conventional steels used in transformers. And because the alloys are thin and brittle - if heated up and dropped they will shatter like glass - they require special care and equipment to be turned into products.
Thus, even though Allied officials claim mass production will eventually bring the price down, the big orders are probably a decade off.
''It is a good material and has some important applications - but they're limited,'' says Dr. Robert Carbonara, a materials specialist at the Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Laboratories.