Will lasers replace spark plugs?

Like Jello molds, spark plugs haven't changed much since their invention 150 years ago. Now, researchers say they can use lasers to ignite an internal combustion engine's fuel/air mixture far more efficiently than spark plugs. Vaporware or the next big thing?

The latest team, based in Romania and Japan, say their system uses new, smaller lasers that can focus beams into the cylinders at varying depths, allowing for a more complete combustion than spark plugs can. It's one of a number of such research projects now in play, including one being conducted at the University of Liverpool in the UK.

The downside appears to be the high pulse energy required to cause ignition. The Romania-Japan team's solution is to use lower-power lasers delivered into the engine by optical fibers, to a spark-plug-sized accumulator of some sort that zaps the fuel mixture in pulses 800 trillionths of a second long. Whether the energy required will be greater than that for spark plugs remains to be seen.

The team, which will present its findings this May at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics in Baltimore, is in talks with automotive supplier Denso to develop the lasers commercially.