Princeton Optronics' Laser Ignition Could Boost ICE's Efficiency by 27%

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
princeton optronics laser ignition could boost ices efficiency by 27

A team at Princeton Optronics working on replacing conventional spark plugs with laser igniters has produced a running engine and they claim that replacing spark ignition with lasers could improve the efficiency of gasoline powered engines by 27%. Considering that the basic design of the spark plug hasn’t really changed in over a century, this would be a revolutionary step, frickin’ lasers or not.

While the first spark plug was said to be invented in the 1830s by American Edmond Berger, the first commercially successful spark plug was likely the 1903 Lodge Igniter, invented by Sir Oliver Lodge of the UK. An early advancement, the use of porcelain ceramic as an insulator, is attributed to Henry Ford’s associate and riding mechanic Ed “Spider” Huff. As the story goes, Huff, who had worked with Ford at the Edison Illuminating Co., used toothmaking material from a dentist. Two of the best known American brands of spark plugs were started by the same Frenchman, Albert Champion, a motorcycle racer who supplemented his income selling handcrafted spark plugs to his fellow racers. Champion moved to Flint, Michigan to race for a local company and in 1904 he started the Champion Ignition Company. After he lost control of Champion to his backers, with the help of the Buick company in 1908 he started AC Spark Plug Co. (for Albert Champion), which was eventually absorbed into General Motors.

Since then, while the materials used and number and layout of electrodes have changed, the way the fuel/air mixture has been ignited, with a high voltage current jumping a gap between two electrodes, causing a spark, has not. While it has worked well enough for over 110 years, there are some drawbacks to spark ignition. One of the better known phenomena is the fact that due to the spark plug’s location on the periphery of the combustion chamber, not all of the fuel is combusted. The flame simply doesn’t spread fast enough to keep up with the movement of the piston. The result is less than ideal from power, efficiency and pollution standpoints.

Working under a modest $150,000 contract from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, Princeton Optronics, a Trenton, New Jersey firm, has demonstrated a working gasoline engine fired with laser ignition. In addition to being able to focus the laser so that it ignites the charge from the middle of the combustion chamber, laser ignition can be timed with greater precision than a conventional spark ignition. It can also cycle faster than the fastest electronically triggered spark plug, allowing for the possibility of multiple firings and those multiple ignitions can be focused at different parts of the combustion chamber to ensure complete burning. Princeton Optronics says that the running engine showed a 27% improvement in combustion efficiency. They also say that the use of laser ignition will allow for a leaner fuel/air ratio, which will reduce emissions.

Back in 2011, Toyota announced that they were working on a laser ignition system, but they never demonstrated a working prototype. Princeton Optronics showcased their own system at an energy innovation summit in Washington, D.C. last week sponsored by ARPA-E. The company demonstrated that their system is capable of withstanding the heat, pressure and high RPM found in a gasoline fired internal combustion engine. While it has yet to be proven to be practical under the hood in automotive applications, Princeton Optronics has already been contacted by a ship company about retrofitting the engines on some of their boats. The shipping industry has come under pressure to clean up their hitherto mostly unregulated emissions. Working under a Navy contract, Princeton Optronics is also working on implementing laser ignition for aircraft engines, where reliability is a critical factor.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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2 of 103 comments
  • Strippo Strippo on Mar 01, 2015

    My cat is only 5% more efficient since the conversion. And he's getting fat since he doesn't actually have to chase the mice anymore.

  • Carve Carve on Mar 02, 2015

    Saab, quite a few years back, had a prototype where the spark plug ground was a nub in the center of the piston. This would allow ignition to start right in the center of the cylinder, and would be less prone to fouling. The challenge is the constantly changing spark plug gap, both through wear and through piston motion. I imagine electronic controls and a sufficiently powerful spark would make this practical now days though. It seems to offer many of the advantages this system offers while be less susceptible to carbon fouling.

  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.
  • Marvin Im a current owner of a 2012 Golf R 2 Door with 5 grand on the odometer . Fun car to drive ! It's my summer cruiser. 2006 GLI with 33,000 . The R can be money pit if service by the dealership. For both cars I deal with Foreign car specialist , non union shop but they know their stuff !!! From what I gather the newer R's 22,23' too many electronic controls on the screen, plus the 12 is the last of the of the trouble free ones and fun to drive no on screen electronics Maze !
  • VoGhost It's very odd to me to see so many commenters reflexively attack an American company like this. Maybe they will be able to find a job with BYD or Vinfast.