Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Light Fantastic

Time for some new auto tech people.

Ford Motor Company, along with scientists at, oddly, the University of Liverpool, have reportedly developed a new ICE ignition system that replaces the venerable spark plug with, wait for it, lasers. The laser pulses will be delivered by fiber optics and will be able to ignite a gas/air charge farther down in the cylinder which should increase efficiency. Also it is claimed it takes less energy to power the laser than a conventional high voltage ignition system.

Foidamoah the fiber optics will have the additional quirk of being able to "observe" the combustion process in the cylinder and "report" back to the ECU which will make appropriate changes in the timing of all the relevant events.

Outstandingly cool tech if it turns out to be viable. What is likely is that it will be fairly expensive to implement, really expensive to replace or repair, and entirely out of the league of the good 'ol shade tree mechanic. It would have to increase combustion efficiency quite a bit to be worth the expense but it does sound promising. Such a high level of combustion initiation may give an engine the ability to run more efficiently on a variety of fuel types.

In other tech news the swells at Mitsubishi plan to field a pneumatic valve actuation system, similar in kind to that used on Formula One engines, that will supposedly have the advantages of the problematic electromechanical systems that have been in development. Interestingly they report that the system extracts more power from the engine as speed increases, just as valve springs do, and that it reaches parity in those terms at higher engine revs. So no big cigar there but it will still have the timing flexibility that is sought in having a valve actuation system separate from crankshaft rotation.

In most engines the crankshaft mechanically drives its camshaft/s mechanically via gears or chains. Very basic stuff and this method has worked well for a hundred years in thousands of different engine designs. Unfortunately a camshaft can only really be completely optimized for its job over a fairly narrow range of engine rpm. Below or above that rev band any engine's performance is compromised to some degree. Much tech wizardry has been employed in recent decades to achieve "variable valve timing" via purely mechanical means with varying degrees of success.

The idea of being able to operate an engine's valves entirely independently of the restrictions of conventional systems has been a holy grail of engine designers for some time now. Most efforts have concentrated on using electromechanical systems, magnets basically, to achieve this but success has been elusive. An actuator stout enough to slam open and close a valve thousands of times a minute and with the finesse to finely time those events has proven very tricky. Pneumatic systems have had more success, in cost-no-object racing engines especially. Nothing simple about any of these systems, to put it mildly, which has made implementation, even in exoticars, uneconomical.

Mitsu has apparently been able to get around some of this complexity and looks to apply the tech to engines in the near future.

It strikes me that a completely variable valve timing system could benefit big engines much more than small ones. No matter what its valve timing a 2 liter engine isn't going to have the torque capability of an engine two or three times that size. With internal friction coming under much better control these days and with all the ignition, injection, and other tech coming on stream the possibility of a large engine acting very much like a small engine in cruise mode is greatly enhanced but will instantly be able to deliver whatever power level is demanded. A five liter V8 could conceivably get nearly the same highway mileage as a two liter four cylinder. With sufficient developement that V8 could conceivably masquerade as a 50mpg fuel miser and if demanded (by your right foot) it could ramp up power instantly to tire shredding fury when needed or wanted. None of this may ultimately matter.

Climate hysteria has made hybrids, pure electrics, and alternative fuel vehicles into media darlings with endless inane blather about "sustainability", "green jobs", "low carbon footprints" and "reducing our reliance on foreign oil imports". Our new administration is completely seduced by the crunchy green groovitational fabulosity of it all and is in maximum coercion mode these days as they attempt to hammer-forge the auto industry into "compliance" with an endless laundry list of dubious and costly enviro-flummery. What all these progressive techno-scenario rearrangers do not seem to be familiar with is basic math which inconveniently tends to put a damper on the high-flying grandiloquence of self-righteous savers of the "planet".

In the progressive new math two plus two equals six if you include the inevitable government subsidy of two. Hardly surprising when one has an attitude that social engineering trumps actual engineering. Progs are busy attempting to convert a vehicle purchase from a mere exercise in consumer preference into a litmus test of one's environmental saintliness. And it's hardly only the province of automobile purchasing. Every class of consumer product is feeling the green lash of government bullying as climate hysteria is used as pretext for unprecedented control of everything we eat, drink, drive, or use for any purpose whatsoever.

Sorry for the digression into the political swamps but it is becoming plain to me that even if a gasoline powered vehicle could be made that got five hundred miles per gallon and its exhaust could be used as room freshener the soggy proggy 'tude that regardless of any efficiencies achieved that in the whole and the parts of their malign influences hydrocarbon powered devices are prime despoilers of the sacred planet. It's a cultural divorce action. We proles must be forcibly separated from our reliance on four-wheeled stinkmobiles and any diminution of our freedom of movement is just unfortunate collateral damage in the grand hubristic "fight" to avert climate change. Of course few pols are dumb enough to actually say that even if some of their more radical constituencies are convinced of it.

So the fact that the internal combustion engine is managing to stay ahead of the technological curve by getting ever cleaner and more flexible may not matter to those who consider the very concept of a cost/benefit analysis a grubby remnant of the old discredited and exploitative mechano-cultural Eurocentric hegemony. A blast of laser light may be able to pierce many things but preening environmental smugness is not one of them.

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