Ford Motors Developing Laser Ignition Technology

Ford Motors, working in conjunction with scientists at Liverpool University have developed a new laser ignition system that may soon make spark plugs a thing of the past.

Researchers claim that the new technology, which employs laser light beams to ignite standard automotive fuels, has proven more efficient and reliable than current spark plug ignitions and will make cars easier to start in cold and damp conditions.

Project leader Dr. Tom Shenton of Liverpool University’s department of engineering says, “We are running engines everyday in our laboratory with this system now and our ultimate objective is to have it inside cars driven by consumers."

One advantage of the new laser ignition system is the ability to split the laser light into separate beams to more accurately target multiple ignition points. According to Dr. Shenton, this means a better chance of ignition.

According to Dr. Shenton, this ability, “can really improve the performance of the engine when it is cold, as this is the time when around 80 per cent of the exhaust emissions are produced and the engine is at is least efficient." Laser ignition is also more fuel efficient than traditional spark plug ignition systems. “The laser also produces more stable combustion so you need to put less fuel into the cylinder,” says Dr. Shenton.

In the new system, the laser is powered by the vehicle’s battery and transmitted over optical fibers to the cylinders. In the cylinder, the laser light passes through a lens to produce a finely focused beam. When fuel is injected the laser fires, producing sufficient heat to ignite the fuel and power the engine. Researchers involved in project say that in order to reach 3,000 RPM, the laser will have to fire over 50 times per second which requires less power than reaching the same RPM using a traditional sparkplug ignition system.

A portion of the separated laser beam can also be redirected back from the engine cylinder to provide data, including fuel type and ignition level, to be used by the vehicles onboard computer to maximize the system’s efficiency. This ability means that cars employing the laser ignition system could fun efficiently on a variety of bio-fuels without sacrificing performance.

“Ford, like all vehicle manufacturers, is obliged by European legislation to reduce emissions," says a spokesman for Ford, ‘and our work in this area is led by Ford’s UK R&D centre in Essex."

Ford Motors has contributed to the project in engineering time and equipment as well as funding, and the project has also been awarded a grant by the Carbon Trust.

Robert Trexona, Head of R&D for the Carbon Trust, says the project, “Has a real potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the future by improving the ignition and combustion of fuel, particularly in engines starting from cold, but it can also be used in mixed fuel engines such as bio-fuels.”

The Carbon Trust is an oversight organization created by the British government to, ‘accelerate the move to a low carbon economy now and develop commercial low carbon technologies for the future."

Ford hopes to begin offering the new laser ignition systems in selected top-of-range models within the next couple of years.

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