Almost two years ago we reported that Ford was working to develop a laser ignition system to replace traditional spark plugs.
At the time, we said that Ford would have the technology ready within two years, but the last we heard about it was in an August 2010 story that said laser ignition would show up in Ford vehicles “within the next few years.”
Perhaps Ford’s development process has been more resource-consuming than originally thought. Whatever the reason for the delay, Ford’s big moment of innovation is about to be overshadowed by a group in Japan, which will present its laser ignition research at a conference next month in Baltimore.
Since you’re reading a car blog, there’s a good chance you know what spark plugs do. But in case you need a quick refresher: In a combustion engine, the fuel-air mix is compressed by a piston and ignited by a spark plug seated in the top of the cylinder. That ignition spark is generated by electricity arcing between two electrodes. Simple enough.
There’s an inherent problem with spark plugs, though. The spark they produce should be hot enough to ignite the leanest possible mix of gasoline and air, but the hotter the spark, the faster the electrodes degrade.
Hotter ignition is one benefit lasers can provide, along with more precise timing and, even better, multiple explosions within each cylinder. The most tangible result of all this, of course, is improved fuel economy.
The futuristic ceramic lasers developed by the Japanese team are just 9 millimeters in diameter and capable of standing up to the harsh environment inside a car engine.
Until we figure out that whole electric/alternate fuel source thing, laser ignition could be another step toward reducing our gasoline use. There’s no indication yet as to how much cost laser ignition would add to a vehicle’s price or when exactly it might be available, but it’s a gas-saving technology that makes a lot more sense to me than gasoline/electric hybrid engines.
How much of a premium would you pay for a car equipped with laser ignition? $1,000? $5,000?