Japanese researchers devise laser 'spark plugs'

Japanese researchers are using lasers to improve the fuel economy of internal combustion engines - perhaps, eventually replacing the spark plug.

Photo credit: Takunori Taira, National Institutes of Natural Sciences, Japan.

A new laser system invented by Japanese researchers could displace the venerable design of spark plugs, which has stood virtually unchanged for the past 150 years.

An inter-university team of researchers at Japan’s National Institutes of Natural Sciences, or (NINS), will be demonstrating a multi-beam laser system at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics next week in Baltimore.

The system promises to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions of smog causing nitrogen oxides. It ignites an engine’s air-fuel mixture more efficiently and further down within the cylinder, burning more air and less fuel.

"Timing–quick combustion–is very important. The more precise the timing, the more efficient the combustion and the better the fuel economy," NINS researcher Takunori Taira said in a prepared release.

Traditional spark plugs are an electrical device that works by igniting the compressed fuel nearest to the cylinder head with jolts of high voltage electricity. They are also a proven technology that doesn't cost much to produce.

Taira said that the team’s system could be inexpensively mass-produced, having overcome the size limitations of traditional laser designs by making composite lasers from ceramic powders.

“Ceramics are easier to tune optically than conventional crystals. They are also much stronger, more durable, and thermally conductive, so they can dissipate the heat from an engine without breaking down,” a NINS press release stated.

I'm wondering how much more incremental cost this will add to vehicles, and whether existing engines could be retrofitted. It would also be interesting to see how much more reliable lasers will be in extremely cold weather.

There is room for innovation in the design of internal combustion engines, because they aren't going to be phased out any time soon. If Edison's lightbulb can become outmoded, so can the spark plug. It's technology - not a religious relic.

Some automotive blogs appear to be skeptical of the technology, but if new thinking can reduce emissions at a reasonable cost, it should be taken seriously - even if it means bidding farewell to a 150 year old design.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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