As long as the internal combustion engine has existed, engineers have been trying to find better ways of igniting the highly combustable mixture of air and gasoline that powers cars.
Everything from higher voltage coils through to electronically-timed ignition and making spark plug tips from metals like Iridium and platinum have helped spark plug manufactuers increase the reliability of spark plugs, but now researchers at Federal-Mogul have developed a fuel ignition system which doesn’t use an electrical spark.
Called the Advanced Corona Ignition System (ACIS), the system makes use of high-energy plasma to ignite the fuel inside the combustion cylinder, resulting in a 10 percent reduction in fuel consumption in a 1.6 liter turbocharged engine.
Plasma -- the fourth and most common state of matter if you remember your high school physics classes -- has some pretty impressive physical properties.
Most useful in this case is its ability to conduct electrical charge extremely easily, meaning it can be the perfect delivery system for high-voltage ignition systems.
And unlike a spark plug, which concentrates electrical energy in a very small area inside the combustion chamber, a high energy plasma source can spread itself throughout the combustion chamber, resulting in a more thorough and powerful explosion.
ACIS also allows engines to run leaner, increasing exhaust gas recirculation and cylinder compression to produce a lower emissions as well.
Longer-lasting and not susceptible to the same corrosion found in traditional spark plugs, Federal-Mogul says the plasma plugs could be implemented by any automaker without any major engine redesigns.
Like the laser based spark plug systems being developed in the U.K. and Japan, the new plasma-based ignition could offer automakers a way of increasing power and decreasing fuel consumption without resorting to expensive hybrid systems.
There’s no information when or if the ACIS spark system will be commercially available, although it isn’t the only alternative to spark plugs going through development at present.