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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 1:20 EDT

Will Lasers Be Standard Equipment In Your Next Car?

April 25, 2011

Spark plugs, little changed in 150 years of use, may soon be going the way of the rotary telephone with the emergence of new laser technology that could replace the ceramic and metal plugs on vehicles in the near future, BBC News reports.

A team at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics is reporting that they have designed lasers to replace spark plugs that could ignite the fuel/air mixture in combustion engines which would increase fuel efficiency of engines and reduce exhaust pollution by igniting more of the fuel. The team is in discussions with a spark plug manufacturer.

Replacing spark plugs with lasers is not a new idea, but the advent of smaller, more powerful lasers could make the idea of laser-based combustion become practical. Spark plugs ignite only the fuel mixture near the spark gap, not ideal for combustion efficiency.

Engineers from Romania and Japan, studying similar technology, have demonstrated a similar system that focuses two or three laser beams into an engine’s cylinders at varying depths. This approach would increase the completeness of combustion.

The lasers for this type of system, however, require high pulse energies that are used needing a higher electrical load, which in turn requires more of the vehicles fuel to operate, nullifying any substantial savings in efficiency.

Takunori Taira of the National Institutes of Natural Sciences in Okazaki, Japan explains, “In the past, lasers that could meet those requirements were limited to basic research because they were big, inefficient, and unstable. Nor could they be located away from the engine, because their powerful beams would destroy any optical fibers that delivered light to the cylinders.”

A fresh approach was needed and researchers have demonstrated lasers made of ceramic powders that are pressed into spark-plug sized cylinders. These devices are lasers, gathering energy from compact, lower-power lasers that are sent in via optical fiber and releasing it in pulses 800 trillionths of a second long.

Unlike the delicate crystals typically used in high-power lasers, the ceramics are more robust and can better handle the heat within combustion engines. The team is in discussions with Denso, a major automobile component manufacturer, to commercialize the modern combustion system and convince auto manufacturers that lasers indeed do have a place within the car.

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