• Apr 24, 2011
The internal combustion engine for automotive use is highly engineered and run by advanced electro-mechanical systems that have been refined over a century of development. That fact hasn't stood in the way of breathless reports about laser spark plugs being the next big thing. Fast Company goes as far as to disparage the gasoline engine as antiquated and filthy while calling exotic and expensive laser ignitors "the gas engine's last gasp before the electric revolution comes."
Laser spark plugs do sound pretty neat. In Japan, researchers at the National Institute of Natural Sciences have cooked up an exceptionally compact laser that's robust enough for automotive use. With lots of strong ceramics and two different yttrium-based laser elements, one doped with neodymium and the other chromium, the lasers are capable of being pulsed more quickly and more accurately than current spark plug technology allows. Another benefit of lasers in the combustion chamber is the ability to ignite the air/fuel mixture with more power than a spark plug can reliably dissipate.

Modern engine management systems and direct fuel injection are capable of exceptional efficiency and more complete combustion than ever before, and gasoline contains a lot more energy per pound than any current automotive battery technology. While spark plugs might seem antiquated, they're far cheaper than fitting lasers for ignition, and the ignition systems attached to those plugs continue to get more and more sophisticated.

None of this research work has been applied to an actual engine yet, making any claims of superiority mere academia at this point. The NINS work will be presented at the 2011 Conference on Lasers and Electro Optics that's happening in early May. While there's great potential for small lasers that can stand up to harsh environments, and the developers are working with suppliers and automakers, it's not likely that your engine will be lit off by an Nd/Cr:YAG any time soon, despite what the car-haters who skim over engineering facts might have to say.

[Source: Fast Company]


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 27 Comments
      Gene
      • 3 Years Ago
      I, for one, think it's brilliant. If lasers can combust leaner and leaner air/fuel mixtures, I see no reason why this shouldn't happen. This, along with servo activated valves and instantly adjustable "cam" profiles could do wonders. There would be less mechanical friction (less energy->heat loss), smaller (and thus lighter) engines, and infinitely adjustable timing for immediate performance or fuel efficiency gains. The ICE is FAR from over. I don't even think we're at the peak of it's efficiency or power. Sure, we'll have more and more electrics, but this laser tech, and maybe the servo-valve tech will only get cheaper and more reliable. Heck, maybe one day we'll have pure synthetic gasoline that could be crazy powerful and super efficient, especially in an engine like this.
      Jim R
      • 3 Years Ago
      There's one way to find out for sure if it'll work. Build one and try it.
      Hazdaz
      • 3 Years Ago
      The future of the ICE: Direct Injection... already here Laser Spark Plugs... getting there Camless Design... a ways away. Once the ICE gets all of these things and then coupled with advanced engine management software and the control over fuel/ignition/timing will be so great that power and efficiency levels we have today will be considered a joke.
        jvshenderson
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Hazdaz
        Maybe so, but it will still emit CO2 even with 100% combustion. Which means that in this political climate, it won't be around long enough for all these upgrades to actually get here.
        Rick C.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Hazdaz
        Camless design? Very likely the next evolution of Fiat MultiAir will have complete independent control over individual cylinders utilizing camless-lift, duration and phasing. As for the laser ignition, talk about technology overkill. But bring it on, it's job security for my industry. And yes, I am a laser engineer.
      Matthew
      • 3 Years Ago
      I very much believe laser ignition will be the future. As i am currently enjoying my gas turbine-powered car. My flying car or roadable aircraft is great at avoiding traffic jams. Also my boat car aka amphibious vehicle is great for fishing trips.
      codyrw
      • 3 Years Ago
      I think what this post overlooks is that tech cost comes down over time. The writer is quick to write it off as too expensive to work - but in 10 or 20 years? Who knows. I bet most people never thought they'd be able to buy a computer for under a thousand dollars. I have no doubt some scientist will get this to work one way or another. Just a matter of time.
      Saif Naqeeb
      • 3 Years Ago
      As a person who studies automotive design, let me just say this. The internal combustion engine, as filthy and dirty as it is, is one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of human kind. Period. Now I am all for improving it and making it better. I really hope that this laser plug system works, but if history is a guide then lets be honest, its gonna take a while. I wish these scientists the best of luck, Lord knows they are gonna need it.
      Zach Hudson
      • 3 Years Ago
      Well, we could just use diesel engines then we wouldn't have to worry about spark plugs at all.
      LEDfoot
      • 3 Years Ago
      I want lasers to blow up the cars of people in front of me that throw their cigarette butts out the window...
      Saif Naqeeb
      • 3 Years Ago
      As a person who studies automotive design, let me just say this. The internal combustion engine, as filthy and dirty as it is, is one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of human kind. Period. Now I am all for improving it and making it better. I really hope that this laser plug system works, but if history is a guide then lets be honest, its gonna take a while. I wish these scientists the best of luck, Lord knows they are gonna need it.
      Tyson
      • 3 Years Ago
      W I L L N O T W O R K. sorry, dont get any hopes up. lasers need crystal clear and properly coated lenses/windows. any spec of contamination or aberration from say... carbon deposits from a combustion process, and the laser becomes useless. this is just a science paper. not an invention or innovation.
        lastday
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Tyson
        the IC engine was once "only" (LOL) a science paper as well. there's the science, and then there's the invention. you can recess the lens and purge it periodically at TDC using a tiny amount of air if you combust hydrogen you will not have carbon deposits there will be a person out there smart enough to figure out a solution maybe not you - but maybe someone else!
      flychinook
      • 3 Years Ago
      "Fast Company goes as far as to disparage the gasoline engine as antiquated and filthy" Interesting. Wonder how those guys get to work, the store, etc...
      JamesJ
      • 3 Years Ago
      I know I may be off the subject here. I have been seeing advertisement for spark plugs that adds a capacitor to intensify the spark, but they charge $25 for them. They claim it can increase power and efficiency, but is it really worth a $200 tune up?
        Arun Murali
        • 3 Years Ago
        @JamesJ
        It does actually, if you use a carb'd vehicle and still bother about performance. In a ECU car, if the ECU does not know something, its better not to do it. In other words, you have to re-program the ECU about higher voltage(temperature) spark.
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