Scientists at Liverpool University and engineers at car giants Ford have developed a new ignition system which uses focused beams of laser light to ignite the fuel.The researchers claim the technology is more reliable and efficient than current spark plug technology and will enable cars to start more easily in cold and damp conditions.
It is understood that Ford, the world’s fourth largest car manufacturer, hopes to put the laser ignition system into their top of the range vehicles within the next couple of years before making it more widely available.
Dr Tom Shenton, a reader in engineering at Liverpool University who is leading the project, said: "We are running engines everyday in our laboratory with this system now and our ultimate objective is have it inside cars driven by consumers.
"Lasers can be focused and split into multiple beams to give multiple ignition points, which means it can give a far better chance of ignition.
"This can really improve the performance of the engine when it is cold, as this is the time when around 80 per cent of the exhaust emissions are produced and the engine is at is least efficient.
“The laser also produces more stable combustion so you need to put less fuel into the cylinder.”
In current engines spark plugs are positioned at the top or bottom of a cylinder and they can often fail to ignite fuel effectively if the petrol is not in the right position in the cylinder.
In the new system the spark plug is replaced by a laser powered by the car battery which is sent along thin optical fibres into the engine’s cylinders where lenses focus the beam into an intense pinprick of light.
When fuel is injected into the engine, the laser is fired, producing enough heat to ignite the fuel and power the engine.
The researchers claim that the laser, which will need to fire more than 50 times per second to produce 3000 RPM, will require less power than traditional spark plugs.
Some of the laser can be reflected back from inside the cylinder to provide information for the car on the type of fuel being used and the level of ignition, allowing the car to adjust the quantities of air and fuel automatically to optimise the performance.
This raises the prospect of mixed fuel cars which can run on a number of different biofuels while ensuring they still run efficiently.
A spokesman for Ford said: "Ford, like all vehicle manufacturers, is obliged by European legislation to reduce emissions and our work in this area is led by Ford’s UK R&D centre in Essex.
“This collaboration with the University of Liverpool is part of that effort, with Ford contributing in kind, with engineering time and equipment use, as well as financially.”
The project has now been awarded a £200,000 grant by the Carbon Trust to help develop the system further. Transport accounts for 25 per cent of carbon emissions and it is hoped new ignition systems can help to cut this level of pollution.
Robert Trezona, Head of Research & Development at the Carbon Trust, said: "Laser ignition is attractive in a number of ways.
“It has a real potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the future by improving the ignition and combustion of fuel, particularly in engines starting from cold, but it can also be used in mixed fuel engines such as biofuels.”