Humanity has always had such high hopes for lasers, from death rays to surgery. But a replacement for spark plugs? It could happen, as researchers from Japan have developed a laser small and rugged enough to fit in an engine.
Spark plugs have been around for well over a century, while lasers are a relatively new invention. While we know lasers are capable of focusing intense energy at a single point, the problem has been the size of the laser. They are too big to be practical under many circumstances, including as a replacement for the pint-sized sparkplug that all automobiles still use. But Takunori Taira from Japan’s National Institutes of Natural Sciences unveiled a new advancement in laser technology that could change all of that.
These durable lasers are made from ceramic powders heated into optically transparent solids that are infused with metal ions. These lasers are compact (measuring just over a half-inch in length, or 11 millimeters) durable, and most importantly, can be mass produced cheaply. Lasers can deliver more energy more precisely, igniting the air-fuel mixture in the center of the combustion chamber and allowing the explosion to fully expand, compared to today’s spark plugs that ignite the mixture closest to the plug. This results in lost power, a less-complete burn, and thus more emissions.
But using lasers will allow engines to combine more air, and less fuel, which will reduce NoX emissions and greatly improve fuel economy. While the lasers haven’t been tested in cars yet, they’ve managed to project about 100 Hz with a dual-laser setup. The aveage commercial automotive engine only requires about 60 Hz. Laser technology as spark plugs has been bandied about for years now by both U.S. researchers and Ford Motor Company, so this advancement could have huge ramifications for the auto industry.
While I am usually an advocate for the simplifying of automotive technology, I can make an exception in the case of lasers. Besides the huge power and environmental benefits, we’re talking about lasers in our cars. That’s some James Bond stuff right there. Hugo Drax, eat your heart out (Moonraker anyone??)
Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs. You can read about his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout or follow his non-nonsensical ramblings on Twitter @harshcougar.