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Transportation Technology

Laser Ignition May Replace the Spark Plug 388

Posted by kdawson
from the what-could-possibly-go-wrong dept.
dusty writes "Laser Focus World has a story on researchers from Ford, GSI, and The University of Liverpool and their success in using near-infrared lasers instead of spark plugs in automobile engines. The laser pulses are delivered to the combustion chamber one of two ways. One, the laser energy is transmitted through free space and into an optical plug. Two, the other more challenging method uses fiber optics. Attempts so far to put the second method into play have met some challenges. The researchers are confident that the fiber-optic laser cables' technical challenges (such as a 20% parasitic loss, and vibration issues) will soon be overcome. Both delivery schemes drastically reduce harmful emissions and increase performance over the use of spark plugs. So the spark plug could soon join the fax machine in the pantheon of antiquated technologies that will never completely disappear. The news release from The University of Liverpool has pictures of the freakin' internal combustion lasers."
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Laser Ignition May Replace the Spark Plug

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  • by SilverHatHacker (1381259) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @11:12PM (#28777947)
    If it makes cool red lights flash under the hood like KITT, I'm all for it.
  • So what happens (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @11:16PM (#28777969)
    When the vehicle gets to be a few years old, and the rings start letting extra oil past. Soon the lenses are covered with soot. Sparks can still jump through a moderate layer of soot, can the laser?
    • You take it to a Factory Approved Dealer(tm), of course...

      I'd be pretty impressed if they can make high energy fibre optics work for any length of time in a consumer auto. Cleaning and mating optical connectors can be annoying in the clean, vibration free, and relatively low power confines of data transmission. Anything connected to an engine, designed to be worked on by mechanics, and carrying enough power to set things on fire is going to be interesting.(though probably a great resource for tinkerers w
      • Re:So what happens (Score:5, Insightful)

        by cptdondo (59460) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @11:29PM (#28778035) Journal

        We're not talking gigahertz, 0.00001% error rate stuff. We're talking honking big pipe firing a few hundred times a second.

        My first thought was, 20% loss? Who cares!??? Just stick a bigger laser on the other end!

        Seriously, this is one of those things where power is good, and more power is better. Early ignition was pretty pitiful. Now electronic ignition is pretty much bullet proof.

        I expect this to be like fuel injection, going from expensive trouble prone disaster to rock reliable. Once they figure it out, it'l be like injectors - maybe 200,000 mile service.

        Honestly, I can't wait. I expect reciprocating engines will be with us a long, long time, burning some sort of liquid fuel.

        • Re:So what happens (Score:5, Interesting)

          by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @11:55PM (#28778159) Journal
          I'm not worried about the amount of energy getting to the cylinder, that can just be brute forced as you note. I'm more concerned about what the energy that doesn't make it will do. Fiber fuse [rp-photonics.com] could be fairly dramatic in such a system. Video of fiber fuse propagating [youtube.com].

          I don't doubt that they'll work it out in the end, engineers have a long history of being clever like that; but it is going to take a giant pile of tweaks on top of the naive implementation.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by cptdondo (59460)

            I remember in the early days when they went to electronic ignition the spark plug wires couldn't take it either and would fail quickly - they'd get brittle, crack, and lose the ability to conduct. After a while, spark plug wires got better; I don't know anyone who actually replaces them unless it's a high-mileage vehicle (like my 1989 Trooper, about due for another set at 224K miles....)

            As you say, the engineers will work this out, but not before some pain....

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by afidel (530433)
          Loss=heat, I doubt the cladding would stand up very well to that kind of loss. In my experience solid state lasers aren't very reliable even at fairly low power. In networking gear GBIC's/SFP's are by far the least reliable components, dying far more often then even mechanical components like fans and probably on par with enterprise HDD's.
          • by Vancorps (746090)

            Is that so? I've never had a fiber GBIC go bad on me and my rig is a traveling rig with over 60 switches and at least as many GBICs. We role in the dust and our biggest problem is patch cables which you sometimes have to rub on your shirt to clean up. GBICs themselves can be blown out with compressed air, not the canned kind of course.

            Given that HP has a lifetime warranty on them I wonder if anyone else has had that experience? I don't think solid state lasers are nearly as unreliable as you claim but I'll

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by PPH (736903)

        I'd be pretty impressed if they can make high energy fibre optics work for any length of time in a consumer auto.

        My money is on the 'free air' optics. In reality, the optical paths and components could be enclosed in some sort of housing. This has been done for spark ignition in a few cars already. The ignition system is one module that sits on top of the spark plugs. In the optical equivalent, the lasers, mirrors and distributor function would be contained in an 'ignition rail', eliminating fiber optic losses and alignment issues.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jcr (53032)

        I would expect the fiber to be replaced with a laser diode right on the cylinder head in the near future. IIRC, you can already get IR laser diodes with quite enough power output to ignite a gasoline-air mixture.

        -jcr

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by RuBLed (995686)
      Buy the fuel with little hard working men that cleans the engine from the inside.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by clarkkent09 (1104833) *
      That's easy, they'll install wipers on them.
    • Re:So what happens (Score:4, Interesting)

      by icebike (68054) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @12:25AM (#28778337)

      Exactly.
      What is the point?

      Obscure claims of increased fuel efficiency and reduced emissions, based on what? A spark is a better combustion source than a laser.

      This looks like a solution in search of a problem if you ask me.

      • Re:So what happens (Score:5, Insightful)

        by hardburn (141468) <hardburn@wumpu[ ]ave.net ['s-c' in gap]> on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @12:38AM (#28778379)

        The laser can be focused to a specific point more easily, allowing it to ignite a stratified charge better. This makes it better at igniting a leaner mixture. Coupled with Direct Injection and maybe some octane boost trickery, this could make gas engines get the same compression ratio as a diesel while still reving over 3k.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by DigiShaman (671371)

          When it comes to ignition, compression is never a problem these days. What compression does do is increase *heat*. So unless your running gasoline with a higher octane rating, you will get detonation and pre-ignition the higher your compression ration is. This of course, can be offset through timing retardation which in fact often does happen electronically.

          The only real advantage I see with a laser ignition system is greater consistency and timing to be used in high revving engines such as F1 race cars. At

          • Re:So what happens (Score:5, Interesting)

            by shiftless (410350) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @03:21AM (#28778999) Homepage

            When it comes to ignition, compression is never a problem these days. What compression does do is increase *heat*. So unless your running gasoline with a higher octane rating, you will get detonation and pre-ignition the higher your compression ration is. ....and what happens when you use a laser to ignite a large portion of the fuel/air mixture at once, rather than using a spark plug to ignite a small flame kernel and waiting for it to propagate? The fuel mixture burns much more rapidly, allowing you to run less ignition advance. The result is more power, fewer emissions, and the engine is LESS prone to detonation. So then you can jack up the compression ratio and gain even more power.

      • Re:So what happens (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Runaway1956 (1322357) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @01:38AM (#28778593) Homepage Journal

        You may be right, in that a spark makes a better ignition source. But, do we KNOW that, or do we just assume so? I won't argue the point, but I will point to explosives, and note that a spark is often not the best source of ignition. Naval guns use electricity to detonate primers. C4 and other explosives use a carefully controlled combination of pressure and temperature. In fact, those explosives can be set alight, and used to cook dinner, because the spark isn't what detonates them.

        Gasoline? Internal combustion engines? They are terribly wasteful of both fuel, and energy. Even a very efficient gas burning engine pumps fuel out the tail pipe, which is the reason catalytic converters are required on vehicles in the US. If a laser can set off a more thorough, more efficient ignition, that burns ALL of the gasoline in the cylinder, fuel mileage will increase, for certain. Polluting emissions will probably be reduced. Is it worth the cost? Only time will tell.

        And, THAT is the reason for research. Very few people will purchase these things if they add $10,000 to the cost of a vehicle - but if the cost is brought down to $50 per cylinder, they never have to be replaced, AND they increase fuel mileage even a little bit, people will buy them.

        Let them research. If/when they have a product ready for market, I'll probably test it.

        • Re:So what happens (Score:4, Interesting)

          by nmos (25822) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @02:32AM (#28778781)

          Gasoline? Internal combustion engines? They are terribly wasteful of both fuel, and energy. Even a very efficient gas burning engine pumps fuel out the tail pipe, which is the reason catalytic converters are required on vehicles in the US. If a laser can set off a more thorough, more efficient ignition, that burns ALL of the gasoline in the cylinder, fuel mileage will increase, for certain.

          Modern gasoline engines already burn something like 95%+ of the fuel that is pumped in so there really isn't that much room for improvement. I suppose any improvement is better than none at all but don't expect any miracles. FWIW this is one of the reasons those gasoline additives that claim to improve efficiency are mostly BS, even if they did cause the fuel to burn 100% it would be hard to even measure the difference in mpg.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by MaWeiTao (908546)

          Gasoline? Internal combustion engines? They are terribly wasteful of both fuel, and energy. Even a very efficient gas burning engine pumps fuel out the tail pipe, which is the reason catalytic converters are required on vehicles in the US.

          I realize it's a fad to crap on internal combustion engines. The fact is that they're by far the best thing we've got for the applications they're used in. If they weren't we wouldn't be driving gasoline or diesel powered cars right now. They provide the best mix of range,

    • Self Cleaning (Score:3, Interesting)

      by wooferhound (546132)
      > Soon the lenses are covered with soot.

      I would think it would be self cleaning, wouldn't the laser keep all the crap burned off of the lens ?
  • In most likeliness (Score:4, Interesting)

    by east coast (590680) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @11:19PM (#28777975)
    This will probably arrive as a viable and reliable technology right about the same time the internal combustion engine is on it's way out.

    Don't think fax machine, think FD Trinitron.
    • I would imagine that such a technology could be adapted to other fuel sources like hydrogen. In fact, I suspect that hydrogen engines might actually benefit greatly from this.

      • by RsG (809189) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @11:52PM (#28778151)

        I would imagine that such a technology could be adapted to other fuel sources like hydrogen. In fact, I suspect that hydrogen engines might actually benefit greatly from this.

        I'm not so sure of that. Granted, you can use hydrogen fuel in an IC engine, but storing it is a big PITA. At sea level pressure, gaseous hydrogen has abysmal energy density per volume, and any solution for reducing that volume would have to be adapted for every car on the road. Meaning liquid hydrogen is a non-starter, pressurized hydrogen needs to be stored in a collision-rated tank, and hydrogen dissolved in or bonded with something else needs a cost-effective carrier of limited weight per fuel (else the energy density per weight or price per tank becomes a problem).

        If we've got the hydrogen storage problem licked, and with all the R&D focusing on precisely that we very well might someday in the not too far future, then why use an IC engine over a fuel cell? In a FC + electric motor configuration, the engine makes very little noise, there are fewer moving parts than an IC engine, no need for a separate (and heavy) alternator + battery to power the electronics, and probably other advantages I've overlooked. The one downside is cost, which can probably be substantially reduced via mass production - the cost per cell is high now, but we aren't making them for every car on the road.

        • by blindseer (891256)

          If we've got the hydrogen storage problem licked, and with all the R&D focusing on precisely that we very well might someday in the not too far future, then why use an IC engine over a fuel cell?

          Because fuel cells require high purity fuel, expensive materials, and are generally very delicate. An internal combustion engine is very durable, a known quantity, and quite cheap. Of course that may change when/if we figure out how to store hydrogen with an energy density similar to gasoline or diesel fuel but I'm not terribly optimistic on that.

          But then your premise is that we don't have the hydrogen storage problem licked already. All we have to do to store that hydrogen in a form that is liquid at se

        • by flyingfsck (986395) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @12:55AM (#28778457)
          Actually, the hydrogen storage and delivery problem has been licked long ago. If you combine hydrogen with carbon and form long chain molecules, it becomes a liquid at normal atmospheric pressure and temperature. This allows it to burn efficiently in modern vehicles without any modifications required...
      • by hardburn (141468)

        Pure hydrogen has a terrible octane rating and is extremely inefficient in an IC. However, you can mix a little into regular gas to boost its octane rating, letting you run higher compression or turbo boost. It also increases the flame front speed, which is particularly good for Wankels. Mazda's Furai concept is being developed along these lines.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by anagama (611277)

        I would imagine that such a technology could be adapted to other fuel sources like hydrogen.

        It may be pedantic, but straight hydrogen should be thought of more as an energy store than a fuel source, i.e., as a gas or liquid battery. The energy used to create any amount of hydrogen is going to be higher than the energy returned in use, similar to how a battery requires more energy to charge than it will give back as usable electricity.

        The advantage fossil fuels have is that the initial energy storage too

    • You want to go to external combustion, then?
      • Yes. Steam engines with modern materials are surprisingly lightweight, efficient, and effective, without the complexities of the internal combustion engine.
        • by jamstar7 (694492)

          You want to go to external combustion, then?

          Yes. Steam engines with modern materials are surprisingly lightweight, efficient, and effective, without the complexities of the internal combustion engine.

          You'll still get carbon dioxide in the 'exhaust', though not carbon monoxide or those nitrous compounds you get from an internal combustion engine's exhaust. You won't need a catalytic converter, at least.

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by gujo-odori (473191)

            Carbon monoxide is a product of all combustion, not just car engines.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Falconhell (1289630)

              How pray tell does hydrogen and oxygen burning produce C02? It would be a bloody miracle if it did.....

        • Yes, my car only takes 2 shovel fulls of coal to make it o work and back.

          Getting it started is a pain if I have forgotten my lighter fluid and I always have to park next to a water hydrant so I can re-fill the water tank....

          • 1. Use a better fuel (compressed biomass bricks, perhaps?)

            2. Get one of these fancy lasers to ignite it from a battery

            3. Use a recirculating condensing water system

            4. ???

            5. Profit!

          • by RsG (809189)

            Yes, my car only takes 2 shovel fulls of coal to make it o work and back.

            What's that in rods per hogshead?

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by shoor (33382)

      Another example of an improvement arriving to a technology just as it was obsoleted is the gas mantle, which improved the efficiency of gas lamps just about the time the electric light bulb came along.

  • PETA (Score:5, Funny)

    by AmigaHeretic (991368) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @11:21PM (#28777989) Journal
    Is it one shark per cylinder?

    Yeah, they're gonna be pissed.
  • IC engine (Score:4, Insightful)

    by zymano (581466) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @11:44PM (#28778101)

    inefficient. Adding a laser is not going to do much.

    • Re:IC engine (Score:4, Insightful)

      by pintpusher (854001) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @12:00AM (#28778199) Journal

      But it's potentially enough. ISTM part of the reason the ICE has lasted so long is the continued incremental improvements that make it just good enough to stick with. Continued incremental improvements in fuel economy, at a rate roughly equivalent to the inverse of the rise in fuel prices will keep the modern gasoline powered ICE a viable alternative for a long time.

      This kind of improvement, along with better optimized hybrids and other "transitional" technologies effectively allow us to maintain the status quo.

      IMVHO, only two things will pitch ICE's off the top of the pile: 1) a radical, cheap, viable, ready-to-go, drop-in-now replacement, or 2) time, a long time.

      • This kind of improvement, along with better optimized hybrids and other "transitional" technologies effectively allow us to maintain the status quo.

        And we want that...why?

        I'm personally in favor of a gas tax that increments $0.50/gallon every 18 months or so.

        • Oh, I don't want that. Just stating what I think will happen...

          Personally, I'm in favor of everyone (from consumer to corporation) getting their collective heads out of their collective asses and making real change instead of paying it lip service. But I don't see any flying pigs yet. And when I do, I'm sure they'll be powered by fossil fuel ICE's.

  • Man, you can use them to light cigarettes too! Oh hell... the fuel injector fire at the same time!

  • Great... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PhotoGuy (189467) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @11:51PM (#28778145) Homepage

    Great, the laser pulses will probably be DRM encoded so that only authorized chips are used and vendors that insert the appropriate smart card can perform service on them...

    The advent of CPU-enhanced cars is a great one, but this is one place where the govt really needs to step in an open things up. For standard engine codes, things aren't too bad; but Lord help you if you want to read an ABS or airbag code from a GM vehicle (for example). They're locked down. I have some decent PC-based code reader hardware and software, but in order to read the ABS error that my two vehicles are both showing (GM, learn to design ABS, will ya!), I need to spend hundreds or thousands on their own software/hardware to simply find out which of my four ABS sensors is faulty.

    The more they get into specialized things like this, including laser ignition, the more I worry that I won't be able to be a backyard mechanic any more.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by bertoelcon (1557907)

      The more they get into specialized things like this, including laser ignition, the more I worry that I won't be able to be a backyard mechanic any more.

      When's the last you were able to backyard mechanic effectively, at least on a "modern" vehicle?

      Most are locked down to the point that many of the smaller auto garages around my house have closed up because they couldn't afford to get every single piece of hardware/software to work on the new cars.

    • by jamesh (87723)

      Great, the laser pulses will probably be DRM encoded so that only authorized chips are used and vendors that insert the appropriate smart card can perform service on them...

      Or even worse, they'll only ignite a certain brand of petrol :)

      Doesn't worry me though. My car is diesel.

      • Y'know, actually, you might be able to do that.

        There has been a lot of research in producing nanoparticles that absorb precisely limited wavelengths of light(mostly for nobler purposes). If you patented one with an unusual absorption pattern, and mixed it with your gas, you could ignite it with a laser tuned to emit in a suitably matched wavelength, while not igniting the normal stuff...
    • Re:Great... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Xenna (37238) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @03:04AM (#28778939)

      That's why I'm putting an open source engine management system in mine:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MegaSquirt [wikipedia.org]

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by smellsofbikes (890263)
        In case anyone is wondering about real-world performance of megasquirt (which has always sounded to me like a bad porn movie title) my ex-boss built a megasquirt system for his 1985 Jeep. It took him over a year to get it working because he had a lot of problems getting the new mass air flow sensor to accurately measure the airflow (positioning it was fairly critical) but once he managed that, the system works beautifully. He's been using it for 5 years, including several cross-country drives and a lot of
  • is a car with frickin' laser beans on its cylinder head?

  • "So the spark plug could soon join the fax machine in the pantheon of antiquated technologies that will never completely disappear."

    I always get my secretary to page me when I get a new fax. Then I head over to the closest payphone and give her a call to see what it says. Generally its just spam :(
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @12:23AM (#28778319)

    There's another obvious application for this - detonating nuclear bombs.

    Nuclear weapons require that all the charges be detonated simultaneously, within nanoseconds, so that the implosion squeeze is precisely symmetrical. (OK, A-bomb geeks, I'm ignoring asymmetrical designs and flying-plate systems here.) If the timing is even a few nanoseconds off, the core won't be compressed; it will just blow out on one side, and a "fizzle" yield will result.

    The usual trick for this is to use an "exploding wire" detonator. Unlike regular detonators, which have an intermediate explosive to start the main explosive, exploding wire detonators do it in one step, by discharging a capacitor bank through a resistance buried in the explosive. This takes a very fast high-voltage high-current switch, and the traditional solution is a krytron, a gas-discharge vacuum tube from the thyatron family. There have been big flaps over the years about various countries trying to acquire krytrons, which aren't classified but are export-controlled.

    Krytrons are 1940s technology. This laser ignition system could be its replacement. One big laser pulse pumped through fibers of equal length to each detonation point should do the job. And it's off the shelf dual-use technology.

  • by oldhack (1037484) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @12:42AM (#28778387)
    Can y'all throw in a car analogy? Help a inquisitive brother out.
  • by BlueBoxSW.com (745855) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @12:50AM (#28778425) Homepage

    Sparkplugs cost like, uhm, a dollar.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by socrplayr813 (1372733)

      But if they are able to improve engine efficiency and bring the cost to a reasonable level, the math may work out.

      Regardless, this is why we do research, people. Tons of technologies have been discovered by accident or adapted from less promising research. There doesn't always have to be an instant benefit for research to be worthwhile.

  • by tchdab1 (164848) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @12:55AM (#28778449) Homepage

    ...they replace the fuel spray from injectors with heavy hydrogen pellets.

  • Lifetime? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @12:57AM (#28778477)

    The problem with putting lasers in your engine is that it gets hot in there, and laser lifetime plunges drastically when you run them at elevated temperatures. I'm sure the dealers will love us having to replace our laser-plugs every two months, but no one else will.
    (And if you're thinking thermo-electric cooling is the answer, that's going to use a whole lot of juice; don't know how feasible it is.)

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by turing_m (1030530)

      I'm guessing that's why they mention fiber optics in the summary, to pipe it in from a cold area (e.g. under the dash) and through the firewall.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by toQDuj (806112)

        Can't imagine the kind of injuries you'd get from a high-power infrared laser shooting freely into a car accident due to broken fibre optics. Actually, I can. It's not pretty.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @01:29AM (#28778559)

    We used a similar system starting back in the late 1990s for initiating ordnance systems. The primary explosive would be doped with a small amount of carbon black to enhance absorption. One advantage was that specific equipment was required for proper initiation, which (in theory) made it safer.

    Dynamite and a laser beam indeed.

  • Dependable (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tekoneiric (590239) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @03:52AM (#28779123) Journal
    Hopefully they are dependable. With the heat of engines I'm not sure how long they would last. One good thing is that it'll flood the market with cheap high power lasers. Importing the parts my have to go by the FDA since they regulate lasers.
  • So close... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dzfoo (772245) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @06:08AM (#28779605)

    >> "So the spark plug could soon join the fax machine in the pantheon of antiquated technologies that will never completely disappear."

    Aw, you were so close, but missed the mark. There are many other examples that you could have used and kept with the car theme. For instance,

    "So the spark plug could soon join the (carburator | solenoid | manual clutch | cassette player) in the pantheon of antiquated technologies that will never completely disappear."

  • by Zaiff Urgulbunger (591514) on Wednesday July 22, 2009 @08:41AM (#28780311)
    There's probably a good reason, but why not use microwaves? Wouldn't that be better to ensure even burn?

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