Laser Ignition Boosts Efficiency 27%



Engineers at Princeton Optronics say they have figured out a way to use lasers in place of spark plugs in internal combustion engines. Why is that important? Because using lasers increases efficiency by a whopping 27%. All that extra efficiency means more power and lower emissions, too.

Every time the world declares the internal combustion engine is dead, someone comes along and revives it. Think back to the 70’s, when the campaign to clean up exhaust emissions gave us evil smelling engines that wouldn’t turn off. They would run your air conditioner or move your car forward but didn’t have enough power to do both at the same time. Corvettes left the factory with engines rated at a meager 150 horsepower. Everyone agreed the internal combustion engine was obsolete. Yet today, four-cylinder engines with twin turbos and electric superchargers crank out 450 horsepower reliably and do it while meeting ever tightening emissions rules. So much for the end of the gasoline engine.

Engines have changed a lot over the years, but spark plugs have not. Yes, some now use platinum instead of copper for longer life, but the idea of shooting a high voltage current across an air gap to make a spark hasn’t changed much in 100 years. The biggest problem with spark plugs is they have to be mounted on the edge of the combustion chamber, which leads to less than optimal burning of the fuel/air mixture.

Princeton Optronics says it has figured out how to focus a laser beam directly in the middle of the combustion chamber for more complete burning of the mixture. That means more power with fewer emissions. Lasers could also be targeted at several areas within the combustion chamber for even more accurate control over the combustion process. Cancel the funeral for the “infernal combustion engine” — again.

The research was funded by a $150,000 grant from the US government. The laser system has not yet been tested under the hood of a road car, but the company says it can withstand the heat, pressure and high rpm found in a typical internal combustion engine. Already, inquiries have come in from several shipping companies, which are under pressure to reduce emissions from their emissions spewing marine engines. The Navy is also investigating the use of lasers in aircraft engines.

Toyota says it was working on a laser ignition system back in 2011, but never developed a working prototype. If the benefits of laser ignition are proven in real world use, the internal combustion engine just got another long term lease on life.

About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I’m interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.

  • zn

    Making container ships more efficient should be priority number one. It is said one large ship can emit pollution equivalent to 50 million cars. 50 MILLION! A 27 per cent increase in efficiency would make a huge, huge contribution to cutting pollution.

    • Steve Hanley

      Right you are, sir! Thanks for your comment.

    • QKodiak

      Computer-controlled sails, solar panels, electric motors, alternators, and batteries could be retrofitted to increase efficiency.

      • zn

        Yeeaaahhh, but it’s not really the ships that are at fault per se, it’s the fuel. Big ships use bunker fuel, basically the cheapest, worstest, kind of fuel made from the crap that’s left over after oil has been refined into more pure fuel sources, like petroleum. When compared to road transport, sea transport is actually more efficient at moving large amounts of goods, however the amounts of sulfur these big ships emit is waaay more than road going vehicles

        The glimmer of hope I see is EVs. If we get enough EVs on the road, we might be able to negate the need for even one of these super tankers to be in operation, thus cutting pollution by a huge amount. It’s a virtuous cycle. EVs use less or no fuel, which then reduces the total amount of fuel needed to be pumped, refined and transported (sea and road) across the whole network of fossil fuel production.

  • Brandon Li

    I absolutely just loved reading and sharing this article. Thanks for writing it and I hope their is more 🙂

  • smartacus

    Laser Ignition + Direct Injection + turbocharged small displacement engine is gonna be awesome! And wait till pneumatic valvetrains come out.