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46 // September 2011 // Engine Technology International.

com
LASERS
Its been around in one form or another for
over a century, but is the trusted spark plug
about to be replaced with all-new,
cutting-edge laser technology?
WORDS: KEITH READ
M
ore than 100 years after
Gottlob Honold, a powertrain
engineer working for Robert
Bosch, took the then-40-year-
old concept of spark ignition
for IC engines and invented the rst
commercially viable high-voltage spark plug,
the automotive industry is poised to see a
dramatic new alternative: lasers are set to
breathe new life into gasoline engine design,
offering increased efciency levels, leaner
combustion and substantially reduced
emissions. However, similar benets could be
achieved even sooner with the interestingly
named, Corona ignition system.
In major automotive centers around the
world, secret research and development into
laser ignition supported by leading OEMs
and Tier 1 suppliers has been quietly paving
the way to practical production-possible
systems. As the announcement of the rst
production car with a laser-ignition gasoline
engine moves ever closer, more and more
information about the experimental advances
and prototype systems is being revealed.
Some of the latest key developments in
laser-ignition systems have been highlighted
in recent conferences on lasers and electro-
optics in both the USA and Europe. One of
the scientists heavily involved in the research
is Dr Takunori Taira, associate professor with
the National Institutes of Natural Sciences
Institute for Molecular Science in Okazaki,
Japan. Essentially, his study is into micro
solid-state photonics based on Nd- or Yb-
doped solid-state lasers and non-linear
frequency conversion.
In 2003, Taira was approached by Kenji
Kanehara, whose career started with Denso
and who is now with Nippon Soken. Kanehara
had a vision of lasers being used to pulse
intense heat into engine cylinders to ignite
the fuel/air mixture. Only one year after the
two engineers met, a program of collaboration
work started, but it has been a challenging
task, admits Taira. Laser-based ignition has
been investigated for a long time since just
after the laser was invented, he explains.
LASERS
Engine Technology International.com // September 2011 // 47
Illustration: www.jacksonillustration.com
Federal-Mogul Corporation has developed a
replacement for the traditional spark plug, which is
already in trials with customers. The system known
as Corona ignition offers improved fuel economy
and could be in production in three years time
according to Kristapher Mixell, senior manager of
advanced technology. A number of major OEMs are
currently undertaking trial runs with Corona, and their
responses will dictate the start of production.
Corona provides a much higher energy capability
than spark plugs, creating streams of ions that
ignite the fuel mixture throughout the combustion
chamber. With more-complete combustion, leaner
fuel mixtures containing more air or recirculated
exhaust gases can be employed, thereby reducing
fuel consumption and CO
2
to levels well below
those achievable with spark ignition. Corona also
allows engineers to develop combustion strategies
such as stratied charge and dilute combustion
for further reduced fuel consumption and
CO
2
emissions.
Corona works by using a high
frequency eld to produce
repeatable, controlled ionization,
distributed over a large area of the
combustion chamber. Federal-
Mogul has optimized the system
to make it simpler to implement in
high-volume applications, avoiding
many of the issues encountered
by other industry researchers. It
also used materials already proven in automotive
applications, so it is robust and durable. Corona
is designed to replace traditional coil and plug
systems, with little or no impact on engine design
or on assembly sequences.
The beauty of the technology is that it suits
alternative fuels and mixtures with high ethanol
content, as it more easily accommodates the
different characteristics.
Federal-Mogul studied a number of alternative
ignition systems before concluding, in consultation
with some of its customers, that Corona was worth
developing as a game-changing ignition strategy.
The concept has been around in patent form since
the 1960s, and offers many possibilities, explains
Mixell. Wed been studying it for some time. In
2007, we started studying it a bit more in depth and
really started intensive R&D a couple of years ago.
He says a lot has been done to minimize the
execution risks. Weve largely gone with proven
materials and manufacturing processes as
opposed to starting with the lab setting
ideals and trying to productionize them.
Exact costings are unavailable.
But from a value perspective it will
be competitive on a cost-benet
relationship, says Mixell. Any cost
premium would be recovered by
reduced fuel consumption and the
bonus of being environmentally
greener through reduced emissions.
48 // September 2011 // Engine Technology International.com
LASERS
TESTING CORONA
Above and below:
Federal-Moguls
innovative Corona
ignition is being
tested by several
car manufacturers
This is because with laser ignition it is possible to realize
ideal combustion. However, it has been limited to basic
research because those early giant pulse lasers are bigger
than our automobiles! The main challenge has been the
downsizing of lasers to the size of a normal spark plug.
Benets aplenty
Despite the vast size of the lasers used in early research,
the work conrmed the potential of laser ignition.
Subsequent investigations by Taira and his team
concluded that the most suitable design for engine
ignition would be an Nd:YAG laser, passively Q-switched
by a Cr4+YAG saturable absorber. Although a side-
pumping geometry could be used, an end-pumping
system would ensure the compact dimensions of the
laser thats required for automotive application.
The incentive for Taira and his fellow researchers to
overcome the many challenges presented during their
work has remained, but they keep going mainly because
of the huge benets that laser ignition offers gasoline
engines. Gasoline is the highest energy density two
orders higher than the Li-ion battery, he explains.
However, its combustion efciency is still not so high. If
we see [gasoline fuel continuing into] the future, we have
to improve the engine as a lean-burn, high-pressure
system to save gasoline and to reduce emissions. The
spark plug, as we know it, could never work in such an
engine, Taira maintains: That is why everybody is
investigating new ignition technology. The advantages of
laser ignition is that it offers multipoint ignition,
multipulse ignition, high-energy (or short-time energy
injection) ignition, exible-position ignition, and it is free
from metal electrodes [that erode]. All these, he says, will
facilitate the lean mixtures necessary for increased
efciency and reduced emissions. In addition, photonics
ignition is free from EMI noise, he adds.
Unlike spark plugs, which ignite only the fuel mixture
near the spark gap, lasers can focus two or three beams
into engine cylinders at variable depths to achieve a more
complete combustion. And, unlike spark plugs, there is
no erosion of electrodes to adversely affect combustion.
During his high-level research, Taira demonstrated that
the cross-section area of a ame kernel generated by laser
ignition is three times larger than that by a conventional
spark plug, at 6ms after ignition in a stoichiometric
mixture (air/fuel 15.2) of C3H8/air, even though ignition
energy of the laser is one-third that of the spark plug. And
100% ignition was successfully demonstrated in a lean
air/fuel mixture of 17.2 by laser ignition a scenario
where the spark plug failed.
To overcome the problem of powerful laser beams
destroying any optical bers used to deliver light to the
cylinder, Taira has been working on a system using
ceramic powders pressed into containers roughly the
same size and shape as a spark plug. Unlike the delicate
crystals typically used in high-power lasers, the ceramics
are robust and better able to withstand the heat within
engine cylinder blocks.
Forecasts regarding the likely timing of production-
ready laser-ignition systems vary. None of those involved
in the research want to make predictions, as the decisions
will inevitably be made by the large companies
sponsoring R&D, and be based on the commercial
viability of a replacement for spark plugs. However,
Kanehara says his dream has always been to drive a car
tted with laser ignition. Hopefully the industry will not
have to look too far into the future for the 55-year-old to
realize his dream.
Leaner operation
Meanwhile, extensive work at Argonne the rst science
and engineering research laboratory in the USA has
shown that natural gas engines can be run much leaner by
replacing spark plugs with a laser-ignition system. As well
as having reduced fuel consumption (due to more efcient
combustion), the lean-operation limit the lowest
possible fuel-to-air ratio for smooth engine operation
can be substantially extended, resulting in additional fuel
savings. Also, with laser ignition the coefcient of
variation of indicated mean effective pressure (COV IMEP)
the industry yardstick used to gauge ignition quality
LASERS
The main challenge has
been the downsizing
of lasers to the size of
a normal spark plug
Engine Technology International.com // September 2011 // 49
Denso is one of the Tier 1
suppliers seriously
investigating laser ignition
Taira says that research
has been challenging, but
creating a laser ignition
system will be well worth it
LASERS
remains low. And so goes the formula the lower the
CVO IMEP, the more reliable the ignition. During
development work, Argonne scientists noted a 70%
reduction in NOx emissions for a given efciency.
Across the Atlantic from Argonne, Ford, through its
UK engine R&D center and the University of Liverpools
engineering faculty, has also achieved impressive
emissions reductions with experimental laser-ignition
systems on production Ford gasoline engines.
Collaborative work in the universitys powertrain control
laboratory and the laser engineering group has
demonstrated nine key potential benets of laser ignition:
reduced fuel consumption through leaner operation;
reduced CO
2
, uHC and NOx; a decrease in CO emissions;
lower idle speeds; better cold-engine performance; and the
absence of electrodes (no intrusion in cylinder). The other
advantages of lasers according to Ford include quicker and
more stable combustion, possibility of larger valves, the
enabling of GDI by a control position of ignition focal
point in the cylinders and possible multiple ignition points
(time and space) for improved combustion control.
Dr Tom Shenton, one of the leaders of the research
project, says a further advantage of laser ignition is that
some of the laser can be reected back from inside the
cylinder to provide information for the car on the type of
fuel being used, and the level of ignition, thus allowing
the car to adjust the quantities of air and fuel automatically,
thereby optimizing performance. Such a setup raises the
prospect of mixed-fuel cars that can run on a number of
different biofuels while ensuring they still run efciently.
During tests, the university team built up a four-
cylinder engine entirely by laser ignition, but delivering
the laser beam via optical ber initially proved more
difcult than the team had hoped: The ber didnt
respond well to engine vibration, which increased the
divergence of the output beam and reduced the beam
mode quality, explains Geoff Dearden, Shentons
colleague from the universitys laser group. Bending the
ber was also problematical: up to 20% of the beam
energy was lost with small bend diameters, while tight
bends caused the ber to fail altogether after a period.
It was also discovered that the higher density of laser
energy could cause immediate or long-term degradation,
leading to loss of beam transmission and therefore loss
of ignition. Careful design of laser parameters, ber
coupling, and choice of optical media is crucial to avoid
this, adds Dearden.
Clearly there are still obstacles to be overcome before
laser ignition becomes a viable system on production cars.
However, the huge benets it offers coupled with the
advances already made should guarantee a sufciently
important incentive for continued R&D into a 21
st
century
replacement for the spark plug, conceived and rst seen in
the closing years of the 19
th
century.
FIVE OTHER LASER BREAKTHROUGHS
50 // September 2011 // Engine Technology International.com
Laser bonding:
Invented in 1997, this
marking technique
makes use of different
types of lasers to bond
an additive marking
substance to a wide
range of substrates.
Laser cutting:
This technology
has revolutionized
manufacturing industries
worldwide since it came
to the fore some half a
century ago. By using a
high-powered computer,
laser cutting works by
directing the output of
a high-power laser at
the material to be cut.
Laser welding:
Much different to laser
cutting, laser welding
has helped car makers
and suppliers for many
years to join together
multiple pieces of metal
through a beam that
acts as a heat source,
allowing for deep welds
to be made.
LASIK:
Laser-assisted in situ
keratomileusis is a
groundbreaking type of
surgical treatment of
vision problems, just the
ticket for those out there
that are nding it difcult
to tell the difference
of various intricate
engine components!
Lightsaber:
It may be ctional, but
just imagine how much
easier automotive
manufacturing would be
if all engineers had this
blade of plasma!
Careful design of laser parameters,
fiber coupling, and choice of
optical media is crucial
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