After seeing Ford (NYSE:F) suffer through a year in which it lost a staggering $12.7 billion, onlookers could be forgiven for thinking the company never does anything small. Yet right now, the automaker is focusing on something very small indeed: nanotechnology. And it could pay dividends in the long run.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote that Ford, in partnership with Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Northwestern University, was collaborating on a multimillion-dollar nanotechnology initiative. News has been slow since then, but the other day, I came across an article in Auto Spectator noting that Ford has installed something called a local electrode atom probe, or LEAP.

This is no ordinary piece of equipment. It is an advanced microscope manufactured by Imago Scientific Instruments, and it has been reported to analyze the precise atomic composition of materials at rates 720 times faster than traditional scanning electron microscopes and transmission electron microscopes. That feature has undoubtedly captured the attention of companies such as Veeco (NASDAQ:VECO) and FEI (NASDAQ:FEIC), which both make similar pieces of equipment.

All of this is important because the LEAP, one of which Seagate (NYSE:STX) has also installed, can help with the development of new nanomaterials that are stronger and lighter than anything currently on the market. This development, in turn, could lead to automobiles that are more fuel efficient (because they are lighter) and increase passenger safety at the same time.

Of course, new nanomaterials are not enough to stop the hemorrhaging at Ford or to help it compete more effectively in the short run with Toyota (NYSE:TM) or General Motors (NYSE:GM), but the company is also working on other nanotechnology-related initiatives that could benefit the company down the road.

For instance, Ford is exploring how nanocatalysts might improve fuel mileage and cut down on emissions. It is also exploring how nanofluids can be employed to make vehicle liquids, such as coolants and engine oil, operate more efficiently by reducing friction and increasing thermal conductivity -- properties that could allow the car's engine to perform effectively at lower temperatures. And, in the longer term, it hopes to incorporate nanosensors directly into the body of the car, to provide drivers with an extra layer of security by helping them better monitor the external environment.

To be sure, all of these advances are small steps -- or, in this recent case, a small LEAP -- but the long journey back to profitability has to begin with a single step.

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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.