An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: Transient Plasma Systems has its roots in pulsed power technology developed for the Department of Defense at the University of Southern California, specifically nanosecond-duration pulses of power. Since 2009, it has been working on commercializing the technology for the civilian market in a number of applications, but obviously it’s the automotive one that interests me. In a conventional four-stroke internal combustion gasoline engine, which works on the principle of suck-squeeze-bang-blow, the bang is created by a spark plug igniting the fuel-air mixture in the cylinder. That spark typically lasts several milliseconds, and although the control of that spark is now controlled electronically rather than mechanically, the principle is the same today as it was in 1910 when Cadillac added it to its engines.
TPS’s system does away with the conventional coil-on-plug approach. Instead, much shorter pulses of plasma — several nanoseconds — are used to ignite the fuel-air mix inside the cylinder. These have a much higher peak power than a conventional spark; thanks to their much shorter duration, however, the ignition is actually still rather low-energy (and therefore lower temperature). Consequently, it’s possible to achieve better combustion at high compression ratios, more stable lean burning, and lower combustion temperatures within the cylinder. And that means a more efficient engine and one that produces less nitrogen oxide. TPS says that using its system, it can increase the thermal efficiency of an already very efficient internal combustion engine like the one Toyota uses in the current Prius (which is ~41 percent) up to 45 percent — similar to the turbulent jet ignition systems that have recently seen Formula 1 gasoline engines reach that level. TPS has designed the system to replace existing spark plugs, so companies don’t have to redesign their engines to use it, the report says. With that said, you can forget about fitting it to your own car as “TPS’s going-to-market strategy is to work with an established tier-one supplier to leverage existing relationships with OEMs as well as existing manufacturing capacity.”