I’m not sure if you realize this, but spark plugs are older than the American Civil War. Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir first used electric spark plugs on his 1860 gas engine, and in the intervening 159 years since then, they really haven’t changed all that much, fundamentally. They’re one of the few parts that could be swapped, with some success, between a vintage car and a modern car. Now a company has an all-new high-tech replacement for spark plugs that they claim will make engines significantly more efficient. And it sounds like the made-up technobabble from Star Trek.
The company is Transient Plasma Systems (TPS), and the things they want to replace spark plugs with are something called “Pulsed Plasma Ignition Systems.” Essentially, the company wants to replace the electrical sparks from spark plugs, used to ignite the compressed fuel-air mixture in the ignition stroke of the four-stroke engine (you know, the bang stage of the suck-squeeze-bang-blow) with nanosecond pulses of very hot plasma.
The advantage of a very short hit of plasma as opposed to a much longer-duration spark is that even though the plasma has much more actual power than the spark, the overall energy of the ignition event is about the same, since it’s so quick.
This means that much better ignition and combustion of the fuel-air mixture can occur, with lower overall temperatures. TPS claims combustion can happen at higher compression ratios, which is good for making more power in an engine, and with less nitrogen oxide waste.
According to an article from Ars Technica, TPS also says they can improve engine efficiency even in highly efficient Atkinson-cycle engines like the one used in a Toyota Prius from 41 percent to 45 percent.
Here, TPS even made a soothing-to-watch video about it:
What’s most interesting about all of this, though, is that TPS is designing their nanosecond plasma doohickies to be direct replacements for spark plugs. This sounds like they’re talking about potentially just swapping out spark plugs for their new plasma units, which is a wildly appealing idea if that means eventual retrofitting kits for older cars.
Sadly, Ars reports that TPS isn’t planning to just sell replacement plasma-pulsers in packs of two at your local auto parts store—they’re reaching out to OEMs to incorporate them into new engine designs.
But don’t feel too bad just yet; I suspect that if I dropped a set of these into my twin-carb’d Beetle I wouldn’t notice anything, since every other system is crude and archaic.