Friday, April 22, 2011

More cool technology to improve our cars

Although its basic design concept has remained unchanged for over a century, the internal combustion engine has seen dramatic improvements in performance and efficiency in the past few decades, mainly due to the use of clever technology.

Computer-based engine management systems allow for ultra-accurate fuel injection and miniscule adjustments to ignition timing to provide a level of performance and reliability previously unheard of. In fact, today's vehicles are almost twice as fuel-efficient as those of 50 years ago and frequently deliver more than 200,000Kms of relatively trouble-free driving.

Despite the massive sums of money being poured into alternatives such as electric vehicles, the good old internal combustion engine still rules the roads, and looks set to continue doing so for at least a few more decades -- and now there's a new piece of hi-tech that looks set further improve its performance and reliability: the laser.

A team of Japanese researchers have come up with the idea of replacing the relatively crude spark-based ignition mechanism used in all petrol/gasoline engines with a laser.

They claim that lasers offer many advantages over the old coil and spark-plug approach -- including more precise ignition timing and more effective ignition.

The concept is that if a sufficiently powerful beam of laser-light passes through the compressed air/fuel mixture in the combustion chamber, ignition will occur. By using a lens to focus the laser, the point of ignition can be shifted to any point within the mixture rather than simply at the tip of an electrode.

Of course a fairly powerful laser is required to generate the necessary temperatures to produce ignition but thanks to significant advances in the areas of things such as ceramic lasers, this is no longer a problem. Each cylinder could be fitted with its own 9mm ceramic laser or a central laser could feed its light into the individual combustion chambers by way of fibre-optic cable, the distributor being replaced by a rotating mirror.

The researchers are claiming that because there is no spark-plug electrode to erode under the effects of constant arcing and high combustion temperatures, the laser system should allow for longer service intervals and improved reliability. They also believe that the creation of multiple ignition points within the cylinder could also improve fuel efficiency.

Every time you think the internal combustion engine is reaching its "best-by date", someone turns around and makes it just a little better and a little more efficient.

I wonder if we'll ever see the end of pistons, crankshafts, bearings and rings in our lifetime?

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