Flash of Genius: Lasers Could Replace Spark Plugs Under Your Hood

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Scientists are looking to harness the intensely focused light from laser beams to fire the cylinders in combustion engines. 

And best of all, they claim laser spark plugs will result in better fuel efficiency.  Conventional spark plugs only fire the fuel near the top of the cylinder, resulting in a modest amount of fuel wasted with each cycle. And blast after blast, the metal terminal that literally sparks in causing the ignition is slowly worn away.

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Both these problems, according to a team from Romania and Japan’s National Institute of Natural Sciences, can be solved with the trusty laser. Its precise beam of light and reliable, lossless lifespan will allow more gasoline to be burned per firing. This will lead to better fuel efficiency, less pollution, and a longer-lasting engine. Sounds like the perfect storm of automobile improvement. So why hasn’t this been done already, you ask?

As it turns out, it’s quite complex to fit a high-powered laser into a tiny package in the inherently unstable environment of a combustion engine. But the Japanese scientists have created a solution made of strong ceramic, the standard material of the common spark plug. They’ve sized down the laser to fit even the smallest engine block at the highest temperatures and timed it to fire with nanosecond accuracy.

Even as society shifts to value hybrid and electric vehicles, this is one project that may actually extend the life of the standard – and dirty – combustion engine.

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