How About Some Plasma With Your Gasoline?
There have been periods of rapid growth in engine efficiency; the main ones, though, were at the dawn of the auto industry, which essentially peaked with high-compression engines (1920s), and the next started in the late 1970s, as automakers tried to hit emissions and fuel-economy goals without hurting power too badly. That brought electronic fuel injection, variable valve timing and lift, multiple coils, distributorless ignition, ever-greater computer control, cylinder deactivation, direct injection, higher compression, and turbocharging-for-the-masses.
One might think we’d reached the point of saturation, and, indeed, each new innovation seems to have a smaller impact than the last one; but there is one possibility that’s been raised by a company using technology from the University of Southern California. Transient Plasma Systems is trying to replace the spark plug, in short, with bursts of plasma.
Some automakers already use two spark plugs (the most famous example is probably the Chrysler Hemi), and others use single plugs with twin sparkers (Toyota, for example). The main problem is that the spark is pretty small, around 0.03 inches wide. Short pulses of plasma could add much more energy, allowing for better burns of lean mixtures, lower combustion temperatures, higher compression, and less nitrogen oxide emissions. Transient Plasma claims their system would be a drop-in, not requiring engine redesign, which can bring thermal efficiency up to Formula 1 levels. It could also work with innovative designs being developed by automakers around the world.
Will it work? That’s one question; another is, how much will it cost? It will likely take a year or three to find out, but it’s an American innovation that might become a global solution. (Original article: ArsTechnica.)
Clark Westfield grew up fixing up and driving past-their-prime American cars, including various GM and Mopar V8s. He has ghostwritten auto news for the last few years, lives in Farmingdale, New York, and can be reached at +1.516-531-4021.