Laser ignition research wins Carbon Trust backing

Engineers at the University of Liverpool are working with the Ford Motor Company to develop a laser ignition system that could cut car exhaust emissions.

The Carbon Trust has awarded the team a grant of £198,910 to support the work.

Replacing conventional spark ignition with laser ignition enables much greater control over the combustion of the air and fuel mix and can cut a car's carbon emissions in a number of ways.

Unlike the conventional sparkplug ignition system, which fires just one or at best two sparks close to the combustion chamber roof, it is possible to 'aim' a laser ignition system to ignite the fuel anywhere in the combustion chamber, therefore focusing the beam where the fuel is most concentrated.

By using ultra-fast computing to direct the laser, the engine can be run on a much more efficient or 'leaner' fuel/air mixture, which would directly cut a car's carbon emissions. This heightened control also helps overcome the poor cold-start performance of engines running high blends of biofuels.

The laser beam can be delivered to the combustion chamber through a thin fibre-optic cable, taking up less space than the spark plug, making room for larger diameter valves, enabling better combustion through more efficient gas flow through the engine.

Dr Tom Shenton, principal investigator on the project, said: "The key to reducing emissions in the spark-ignition engine is improved control, and for the last one hundred years the primary means of ignition control has been the spark plug. With laser ignition we now have an exciting alternative which will give much greater scope for engine controller optimisation and the implementation of new engine designs."

Mark Williamson, director of innovations at the Carbon Trust, said: "We have to find ways to make vehicles cleaner if the UK is to hit its carbon emissions targets. Laser ignition improves the efficiency of petrol cars and could, in the future, speed the uptake of cars run on biofuels derived from sustainable organic materials such as algae."

The Carbon Trust launched the Algae Biofuels Challenge in October 2008 with an ambitious mission to commercialise the use of algae biofuel as an alternative to fossil based oil by 2020.

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