Company: Laser sparks revolution in internal combustion engines


April 20, 2011
Blog Entry, Technology

WASHINGTON, April 20 — For more than 150 years, spark plugs have powered internal combustion engines. Automakers are now one step closer to being able to replace this long-standing technology with laser igniters, which will enable cleaner, more efficient, and more economical vehicles.

In the past, lasers strong enough to ignite an engine’s air-fuel mixtures were too large to fit under an automobile’s hood. At this year’s Conference on Lasers and Electro Optics (CLEO: 2011), to be held in Baltimore May 1 – 6, researchers from Japan will describe the first multibeam laser system small enough to screw into an engine’s cylinder head.

Equally significant, the new laser system is made from ceramics, and could be produced inexpensively in large volumes, according to one of the presentation’s authors, Takunori Taira of Japan’s National Institutes of Natural Sciences.

According to Taira, conventional spark plugs pose a barrier to improving fuel economy and reducing emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), a key component of smog.

Spark plugs work by sending small, high-voltage electrical sparks across a gap between two metal electrodes. The spark ignites the air-fuel mixture in the engine’s cylinder — producing a controlled explosion that forces the piston down to the bottom of the cylinder, generating the horsepower needed to move the vehicle.

Engines make NOx as a byproduct of combustion. If engines ran leaner — burnt more air and less fuel — they would produce significantly smaller NOx emissions.

Spark plugs can ignite leaner fuel mixtures, but only by increasing spark energy. Unfortunately, these high voltages erode spark plug electrodes so fast, the solution is not economical. By contrast, lasers, which ignite the air-fuel mixture with concentrated optical energy, have no electrodes and are not affected.

Lasers also improve efficiency. Conventional spark plugs sit on top of the cylinder and only ignite the air-fuel mixture close to them. The relatively cold metal of nearby electrodes and cylinder walls absorbs heat from the explosion, quenching the flame front just as it starts to expand.

Lasers, Taira explains, can focus their beams directly into the center of the mixture. Without quenching, the flame front expands more symmetrically and up to three times faster than those produced by spark plugs.

Equally important, he says, lasers inject their energy within nanoseconds, compared with milliseconds for spark plugs. “Timing — quick combustion — is very important. The more precise the timing, the more efficient the combustion and the better the fuel economy,” he says.

Lasers promise less pollution and greater fuel efficiency, but making small, powerful lasers has, until now, proven hard. To ignite combustion, a laser must focus light to approximately 100 gigawatts per square centimeter with short pulses of more than 10 millijoules each.

“In the past, lasers that could meet those requirements were limited to basic research because they were big, inefficient, and unstable,” Taira says. Nor could they be located away from the engine, because their powerful beams would destroy any optical fibers that delivered light to the cylinders.

Taira’s research team overcame this problem by making composite lasers from ceramic powders. The team heats the powders to fuse them into optically transparent solids and embeds metal ions in them to tune their properties.

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.

Taira’s team built its laser from two yttrium-aluminum-gallium (YAG) segments, one doped with neodymium, the other with chromium. They bonded the two sections together to form a powerful laser only 9 millimeters in diameter and 11 millimeters long (a bit less than half an inch).

The composite generates two laser beams that can ignite fuel in two separate locations at the same time. This would produce a flame wall that grows faster and more uniformly than one lit by a single laser.

The laser is not strong enough to light the leanest fuel mixtures with a single pulse. By using several 800-picosecond-long pulses, however, they can inject enough energy to ignite the mixture completely.

A commercial automotive engine will require 60 Hz (or pulse trains per second), Taira says. He has already tested the new dual-beam laser at 100 Hz. The team is also at work on a three-beam laser that will enable even faster and more uniform combustion.

The laser-ignition system, although highly promising, is not yet being installed into actual automobiles made in a factory. Taira’s team is, however, working with a large spark-plug company and with DENSO Corporation, a member of the Toyota Group.

 

This work is supported by the Japan Science and Technical Agency (JST).

CLEO: 2011 presentation CMP1, “Composite All-Ceramics, Passively Q-switched Nd:YAG/Cr4+:YAG Monolithic Micro-Laser with Two-Beam Output for Multi-Point Ignition,” by Nicolaie Pavel of Romania’s National Institute for Laser, Plasma and Radiation Physics; Takunore Taira and Masaki Tsunekane of Japan’s Institute for Molecular Science; and Kenji Kanehara of Nippon Soken, Inc., Japan, is at 1:30 p.m. Monday, May 2 in the Baltimore Convention Center.

About CLEO

With a distinguished history as the industry’s leading event on laser science, the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO) and the Quantum Electronics Laser Science Conference (QELS) is where laser technology was first introduced. CLEO: 2011 will unite the field of lasers and electro-optics by bringing together all aspects of laser technology, with content stemming from basic research to industry application. Sponsored by the American Physical Society’s (APS) Laser Science Division, the Institute of Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Photonics Society and the Optical Society (OSA), CLEO: 2011 provides the full range of critical developments in the field, showcasing the most significant milestones from laboratory to marketplace. With an unparalleled breadth and depth of coverage, CLEO: 2011 connects all of the critical vertical markets in lasers and electro-optics. For more information, visit the conference’s website at www.cleoconference.org.

 



Company: Laser sparks revolution in internal combustion engines

25 Responses to Company: Laser sparks revolution in internal combustion engines

  1. george shaya August 30, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

    Love it I hope you keep it and make it work selling them to installers and the masses. I hope you keep me in mind if you need an installer in just north of Philadelphia bucks County. Sams auto Service warminster pa, 18974

  2. Jed Bintz December 13, 2011 at 7:01 pm #

    Great article regarding laser sparks in internal combustion engines. Thanks!. Found a great website here: World of Tanks Points Hack 2011

  3. henryk December 9, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

    FireSrorm Spark Plug

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abwXApkLhbc

  4. Henryk May 1, 2011 at 5:28 am #

    The FireStorm Plasma iPlug is a new entry in the formerly mundane area of Spark Plugs. All Spark Plugs produce “sparks” to ignite the Air Fuel Mixture in the combustion Chambers. FireStorm is different, it produces “PLASMA”. By doing that, it eliminates the Catalytic Converter and EGR Systems and can still pass future emission requirements in California.

    Here is a clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abwXApkLhbc

    Further testing after that clip was shot in Detroit proved a 70% savings in fuel all while affording a 125 More Horsepower.
    It is a Paradigm Shift in Air Fuel Ratio as this plug operates at 30 to 1 Air to Fuel Ratio. All current IC engines operate at 14.7 to 1 and require a Cat and EGR.

    FireStorm can even crack water right in the Combustion_Chamber thereby eliminating so-called HHO Generators. Can I hear fill your car up at the side of your house with the garden hose? YES!!!!
    SB3U

  5. Henryk May 1, 2011 at 5:27 am #

    The FireStorm Plasma iPlug is a new entry in the formerly mundane area of Spark Plugs. All Spark Plugs produce “sparks” to ignite the Air Fuel Mixture in the combustion Chambers. FireStorm is different, it produces “PLASMA”. By doing that, it eliminates the Catalytic Converter and EGR Systems and can still pass future emission requirements in California.

    Here is a clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abwXApkLhbc

    Further testing after that clip was shot in Detroit proved a 70% savings in fuel all while affording a 125 More Horsepower.
    It is a Paradigm Shift in Air Fuel Ratio as this plug operates at 30 to 1 Air to Fuel Ratio. All current IC engines operate at 14.7 to 1 and require a Cat and EGR.

    FireStorm can even crack water right in the Combustion_Chamber thereby eliminating so-called HHO Generators. Can I hear fill your car up at the side of your house with the garden hose? YES!!!!
    SB3U

  6. Henryk May 1, 2011 at 5:27 am #

    The FireStorm Plasma iPlug is a new entry in the formerly mundane area of Spark Plugs. All Spark Plugs produce “sparks” to ignite the Air Fuel Mixture in the combustion Chambers. FireStorm is different, it produces “PLASMA”. By doing that, it eliminates the Catalytic Converter and EGR Systems and can still pass future emission requirements in California.

    Here is a clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abwXApkLhbc

    Further testing after that clip was shot in Detroit proved a 70% savings in fuel all while affording a 125 More Horsepower.
    It is a Paradigm Shift in Air Fuel Ratio as this plug operates at 30 to 1 Air to Fuel Ratio. All current IC engines operate at 14.7 to 1 and require a Cat and EGR.

    FireStorm can even crack water right in the Combustion_Chamber thereby eliminating so-called HHO Generators. Can I hear fill your car up at the side of your house with the garden hose? YES!!!!
    SB3U

  7. jim April 24, 2011 at 6:56 pm #

    AC induction motors don’t use rare earth magnets. They work fine for electric cars. The Chinese can keep their neodymium.

  8. Charles April 24, 2011 at 5:12 am #

    I am all for this but think retro fit wont work as well …. have to have much better timing for the fire!
    right now for TDC there is slop in the timing that would prevent the exact fire needed for this to work correctly ….
    Here is some food for thought though …. what about change the air come in for a better burn?
    Ever wonder how them oxygen consecrates work so that they do not have to have tanks of oxygen but get 97 to 99% oxygen?
    they drag the air through a rock!
    so what if we changed the air to 90% or better oxygen then ignited it would make a much better burn and way less fuel to do it!!!

  9. xbronx April 24, 2011 at 5:01 am #

    Oh maybe we can leave it to big daddy to take care of us.. Like obama inc….people invent they should make money…dahhhh

  10. snaxalotl April 23, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

    chowderhead, you will have a much happier life if you stop blaming other people for your own inability to understand basic science

  11. Idiot Savant April 23, 2011 at 5:39 pm #

    Excuse my ignorance, but it seems to me that a true breakthrough will come when these very efficient plugs can be easily retrofitted into existing engines. Is this possible with the devices you review here, or would it be with an under-the-hood adapter?

    No matter how dramatic the improvement, not too many people will buy a new car with an unproven technology on the basis of a promise of an additional 5mpg, (or even 10mpg). A retrofit would sell and be accepted much quicker, and have an impact that much faster.

  12. Dave April 23, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

    Electric vehicles are not carbon neutral, which is a crock anyway. They still rely on the electrical grid and power plants. Unless you are getting the power from a nuke plant you are still burning hydrocarbons or coal. Wind and solar power just will never replace other power sources without major improvements in technologies.

    I am glad to see an advancement in spark plug technology. Seen many claims for improved plugs over the years, but most are snake oil. Hopefully these new laser plugs will be on the market in the near future.

  13. Jabba April 21, 2011 at 10:41 pm #

    Hey Biff, I am interested in investing in your bumb hole cleaning device. Sounds more realistic than some of the other devices being introduced lately.

  14. Reginald Harris April 21, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    To the aptly named Chowder Head.

    If you think that so called ‘free magnet’ motor is possible, I suggest you build one yourself.

    This is Science Blog’, not ‘Crackpot Conspiracy Nut who believes in free energy machines Blog’.

  15. chowder head April 21, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    Why we do not have a magnetic engine by now is totally ridiculous , the entire univers runs off of magnetics, yet we can not build the elusive free maganet motor , I believe we have one the greedy oil companies have bought it and thrown it in a closet and the people will never see it . Isnt capitalism wonderful

  16. Dave Spinnett April 21, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    Ironically, you may end up with “hot” and “cold” lasers, which need replacing every 30k miles….. a great way to replace the old with the new without anybody noticing ;)

    To the comments of an earlier poster, due to the speed of the ignition event and improvement in flame propagation due to the lasers ability to place the center (or multiple centers) of combustion is huge – theoretically you could get the timing to near TDC which is a major efficiency improvement as the expanding flame front is no longer fighting piston travel for nearly 30 degrees of rotation, which in turn makes more power and better mileage or allows smaller engines, less weight, smaller cooling systems etc, with a cascading weight reduction/efficiency improvement… Can’t wait to see it in action! Combine this with the practical application of 42v systems, start stop and other technologies, gas engines will be around a long time and EV’s will have a hard time as reasonable alternatives for many years.

  17. Biff April 21, 2011 at 10:08 am #

    I’m working on a laser designed to clean one’s bumb hole. It will be called the Bumb Hole Blaster. I’m having trouble tuning it to prevent the creation of another bumb hole.

  18. MechE April 21, 2011 at 9:26 am #

    Correct.

  19. Dan April 21, 2011 at 7:29 am #

    Probably because there are not enough rare earth elements required to make EVs (batteries, electric engines, etc…) to replace more than 25% of the current gasoline/diesel engines in the world. So even if we did replace those vehicles with EVs, we would not have those materials available to produce our consumer electronics. Unless we start mining in outer space, EVs are simply not a viable alternative to completely replace the internal combustion engine. We’d have better luck trying to figure out a way to synthesize gasoline or focus on trying to use alternative diesel fuels…

  20. Paul April 21, 2011 at 7:12 am #

    That heat isn’t wasted in the wintertime, Frants; but EV’s tend to die quickly trying to run heaters this time of year. The internal combustion engine isn’t as inefficient as you believe, and in the winter months offers much greater efficiency over electric vehicles.

  21. tom wible April 21, 2011 at 6:12 am #

    the reason e.v.s are still marginal is simple physics: the energy density of batteries is orders of magnitude less that gasoline…

  22. Mark Rehorst April 21, 2011 at 5:53 am #

    At this power level anything deposited on the “lens” (more likely a window) will be burned off by the laser pulses. The questions is whether the window will be able to withstand the repeated firing over a period of years without being destroyed by the energy from the light. Sparkplugs in my car need be replaced only every 100k miles. That will be hard to match.

  23. Frants April 21, 2011 at 5:14 am #

    Wow, all this effort spent on the internal combustion engine which is extremely in-efficient if you consider all the wasted heat we need to get rid of otherwise the engine seizes.

    Why not spend you time and effort on electric vehicles?

    But what do I know!

  24. John Hoffman April 20, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    The only issue I see with this is soot or carbon being deposited on the lens. Even running very lean you will still have carbon deposition. If you are trying to focus the laser at a point in the center of the combustion chamber the energy of the light at the surface of the lens will be significantly lower. If you instead use a narrow beam through the cylinder it would burn off the carbon more effectively, although it wouldn’t produce a spherical combustion pattern.

  25. Materials Scientist April 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    I always thought YAG was yittrium aluminium garnet

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