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An ignition system is a system for igniting a fuel-air mixture. It is best known in the field
of internal combustion engines but also has other applications, e.g. in oil-fired and gas-
fired boilers. The earliest internal combustion engines used a flame, or a heated tube, for
ignition but these were quickly replaced by systems using an electric spark.

The power required for the motion of a vehicle is obtained by controlled combustion of
fuel/air mixture in the cylinder of the engine. The energy produced due to this
combustion is converted and transmitted from the engine to the wheels by means of
mechanical linkages. The process of combustion of fuel is initiated by the ignition

The ignition system has two tasks to perform. First, it must create a voltage high enough
(20,000+) to arc across the gap of a spark plug, thus creating a spark strong enough to
ignite the air/fuel mixture for combustion. Second, it must control the timing of that the
spark so it occurs at the exact right time and send it to the correct cylinder.

In IC engines there are 2 types of ignition based on the fuel being used:

1. spark ignition (petrol engine)

2. compression ignition (diesel engine)

Spark igniion
In a petrol engine, the fuel and air are usually pre-mixed before compression. The pre-
mixing was formerly done in a carburetor, but now (except in the smallest engines) it is
done by electronically controlled fuel injection.
In this system fuel entering the engine cylinder is ignited by means of a spark. The
required amount of fuel is induced into the cylinder during suction stroke. This fuel is
ignited during the compression stroke by a spark produced by a spark plug. Due to the

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combustion of fuel large amount of heat and high pressure gases are produced which
expand causing linear motion of the piston.

Based on the method by which spark is created and distributed, ignition systems are
classified as:

1. Mechanical ignition System

2. Electronic ignition system
3. Distributor less ignition system

Mechanical ignition system

The Mechanical Ignition System was used prior to 1975. It was mechanical and
electrical and used no electronics.

The ignition system consists of a battery, ignition coil, distributor, distributor cap, rotor,
plug wires and spark plugs.

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Typical mechanical ignition system:

The system is powered by a lead-acid battery, which is charged by the car's electrical
system using a dynamo or alternator. It provides power to the system.
The heart of the system is the distributor. The distributor contains a rotating cam driven
by the engine's drive, a set of breaker points, a condenser, a rotor and a distributor cap.
First, it is responsible for triggering the ignition coil to generate a spark at the precise
instant that it is. Second, the distributor is responsible for directing that spark to the
proper cylinder. The pulse arcs across the small gap between the rotor and the contact
(they don't actually touch) and then continues down the spark-plug wire to the spark plug
on the appropriate cylinder.

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A laser is a device that emits light (electromagnetic radiation) through a process of optical
amplification based on the stimulated emission of photons. The term "laser" is an
acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

Typically, very intense flashes of light or electrical discharges pump the lasing medium
and create a large collection of excited-state atoms (atoms with higher-energy electrons).
It is necessary to have a large collection of atoms in the excited state for the laser to work
efficiently. In general, the atoms are excited to a level that is two or three levels above the
ground state. This increases the degree of population inversion. The population inversion
is when the number of atoms in the excited state is more than the number in ground state.
The excited electrons have energies greater than the more relaxed electrons. Just as the
electron absorbed some amount of energy to reach this excited level, it can also release
this energy. As the figure below illustrates, the electron can simply relax, and in turn rid
itself of some energy.

This emitted energy comes in the form of photons (light energy). The photon emitted has
a very specific wavelength (color) that depends on the state of the electron's energy when
the photon is released. Two identical atoms with electrons in identical states will release
photons with identical wavelengths. The photon that any atom releases has a certain

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wavelength that is dependent on the energy difference between the excited state and the
ground state. If this photon should encounter another atom that has an electron in the
same excited state, stimulated emission can occur. The first photon can stimulate or
induce atomic emission such that the subsequent emitted photon vibrates with the same
frequency and direction as the incoming photon. The other key to a laser is a pair of
mirrors, one at each end of the lasing medium. Photons, with a very specific wavelength
and phase, reflect off the mirrors to travel back and forth through the lasing medium. In
the process, they stimulate other electrons to make the downward energy jump and can
cause the emission of more photons of the same wavelength and phase. A cascade effect
occurs, and soon we have propagated many, many photons of the same wavelength and
phase. The mirror at one end of the laser is "half-silvered," meaning it reflects some light
and lets some light through. The light that makes it through is the laser light.

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The figure below illustrates the stages in laser light formation by stimulated

Types of lasers

There are many different types of lasers. The laser medium can be a solid, gas, liquid or
semiconductor. Lasers are commonly designated by the type of lasing material employed:

1. Solid-state lasers: have lasing material distributed in a solid matrix

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2. Gas lasers
3. Excimer lasers: use reactive gases, such as chlorine and fluorine, mixed with inert
gases such as argon, krypton or xenon.
4. Dye lasers: use complex organic dyes, such as rhodamine 6G, in liquid solution or
suspension as lasing media.
5. Semiconductor lasers
Properties of laser light

1. Monochromatic - photons of one wavelength. In contrast, ordinary white

Light is a combination of different wavelengths.
2. Directional- laser light is emitted as a narrow beam and in a specific
direction. This property is referred to as directionality.
3. Coherent - The light from a laser is said to be coherent. This means that
the wavelengths of the laser light are in phase.

Here are some typical lasers and their emission wavelengths:

Laser Type Wavelength (nm)

Argon fluoride (UV) 193
Krypton fluoride (UV) 248

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Xenon chloride (UV) 308

Nitrogen (UV) 337
Argon (blue) 488
Argon (green) 514
Helium neon (green) 543
Helium neon (red) 633
Rhodamine 6G dye (tunable) 570-650
Ruby (CrAlO3) (red) 694
Nd:Yag (NIR) 1064
Carbon dioxide (FIR) 10600


The use of laser ignition to improve gas engine performance was initially demonstrated
by J. D. Dale in 1978.
However, with very few exceptions, work in this area has for the last 20 years been
limited to laboratory experimentation employing large, expensive and relatively
complicated lasers and laser beam delivery systems.
More recently, researchers at GE-Jenbacher, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Toyota,
National Energy Technology Lab and Argonne National Lab have obtained and/or built
smaller high peak power laser spark plugs.

Unlike many earlier laboratory laser systems, these smaller lasers are now mounted
directly onto the engine cylinder head so as to fire the laser beam directly into the
chamber. This arrangement allows the laser to become a direct replacement for the
traditional high voltage electrical spark-gap plug. Further reductions in laser size, price
and complexity will help the laser spark plug become a commercial reality and a viable
competitor to the traditional high voltage spark-gap plug.

The Otto or SI engine is today characterized by low pollutant emissions. The very
efficient exhaust gas treatment makes power drives for nearly equal zero emission

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operation possible. There is however need for improvement of fuel consumption and the
higher carbon dioxide emissions compared to the Diesel equivalent.

Advancing the state of art of ignition systems for lean burn, stationary, natural gas fuelled
engines is crucial to meet increased performance requirements. As the demand for higher
engine efficiencies and lower emissions drive stationary, spark-ignited reciprocating
engine combustion to leaner air/fuel operating conditions and higher in-cylinder
pressures, increased spark energy is required to maintain stable combustion and low

To compensate power density losses due to leaner operation, high pressure of initial
charge is used to increase in-cylinder pressure at the time of combustion. However, an
important parameter is the ignition under extreme conditions, lean combustible mixture
and high initial pressure, requiring high voltage when using conventional spark plug
technology. Providing the necessary spark energy to operate these engines significantly
reduces the lifetime of spark plug and its effectiveness in transmitting adequate energy as
an ignition source. Laser ignition offers the potential to improve ignition system
durability, reduce maintenance, as well as to improve engine combustion performance.

Breakdown voltage of the spark plugs of a large gas engine depending on the
test duration at two different BMEP levels:

It can seen from the graph of spark voltage vs. test duration at different brake mean
effective pressures, the spark voltage required for ignition increases with pressure in
spark ignition system.

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It has been known for some time already that when a short laser impulse is focused in air
a strong spark is generated which is connected with an audible bang - "ignition plasma".
The plasma formed in the process bears a certain resemblance to the one generated during
the electrical discharge between two electrodes; it was therefore obvious at the start of the
studies to ignite the mixture in a combustion engine also by a focused laser impulse
instead of a conventional ignition spark.

The method by which the laser induces breakdown in a combustible gaseous mixture has
been divided into four basic processes: thermal heating, non resonant breakdown,
resonant breakdown and photochemical excitation. Thermal heating takes place where the
laser beam is incident on a solid target and induces excitation by heating the target or by
exciting rotational or vibrational modes of oscillation in the surrounding gas. Resonant
breakdown occurs when the incident radiation ionizes the gas molecules and frees up
electrons to absorb the radiation energy and in turn ionize other gas molecules leading to
an avalanche breakdown. Photochemical ignition occurs when a single photon dissociates
a molecule thus allowing the ionized constituents to react with the surrounding gases.
Non-resonant breakdown occurs when laser light is focused into a gas and the electrical
field component of the light is strong enough to initiate the electrical breakdown of the

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gas. The non-resonant breakdown mechanism is the predominant factor governing the
results presented in this work.
Tests conducted on laser ignition:

Laser ignition tests were performed with gasoline in a spray-guided internal combustion
engine. An Nd: YAG laser with 6 ns pulse duration, 1064 nm wavelength and 1-50 mJ
pulse energy was used to ignite the fuel/air mixtures at initial pressures of 1-3 MPa.
Schlieren photography was used for optical diagnostics of flame kernel development and
shock wave propagation.

The engine, a one-cylinder research engine, was deployed for the investigation of spray
guided combustion initiated by a laser. The focus of sustainability is on laser ignition for
enhanced combustion and efficiency.

Pressure within the combustion chamber has been recorded as well as fuel consumption
and exhaust gases. The laser was triggered at well defined positions of the crankshaft, just
as with conventional ignition systems. Pulse energies, ignition location and fuel/air ratios
have been varied during the experiments. The engine has been operated at each setting for
several hours, repeatedly. All laser ignition experiments have been accompanied by
conventional spark plug ignition as reference measurements.

Technical data of the research engine and the Nd:YAG laser used for the experiments:

Research engine Q-switched Nd:YAG laser

Number of cylinders: 1
Pump source: Flash lamp
Number of valves: 1
Wavelength 1064 or 532 nm
Injector: Multi-hole

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Maximum pulse energy: 160 mJ

Stroke: 85 mm
Pulse duration: 6 ns
Bore: 88 mm
Power Consumption: 1 kW
Displacement volume: 517 cm3
Beam diameter: 6 mm
Compression ratio: 11.6
Type: Quantel Brillian

Results of the test:

Results of the experiments show that laser ignition has advantages compared to
conventional spark plug ignition. Compared to conventional spark plug ignition, laser
ignition reduces the fuel consumption by several per cents. Exhaust emissions are
reduced by nearly 20%. It is important that the benefits from laser ignition can be
achieved at almost the same engine smoothness level. Additionally, a frequency-doubled
Nd:YAG laser has been used to examine possible influences of the wavelength on the
laser ignition process. No influences could be found. Best results in terms of fuel
consumption as well as exhaust gases have been achieved by laser ignition within the fuel
spray. As already mentioned, it is not possible to use conventional spark plugs within the
fuel spray since they will be destroyed very rapidly. Laser ignition doesnt suffer from
that restriction.
Graphical comparison of laser and spark ignition with respect to fuel
consumption, smoothness of running and emissions from test results:

It can be inferred from the graph that laser ignition system has better properties than
spark ignition system, with respect to fuel consumption, smoothness of operation and
amount of emissions expelled.

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Another important question with a laser ignition system is its reliability. It is clear that the
operation of an engine causes very strong pollution within the combustion chamber.
Deposits caused by the combustion process can contaminate the beam entrance window
and the laser ignition system will probably fail. To quantify the influence of deposits on
the laser ignition system, the engine has been operated with a spark plug at different load
points for more than 20 hours with an installed beam entrance window. The window was
soiled with a dark layer of combustion deposits. Afterwards, a cold start of the engine
was simulated. The first laser pulse ignited the fuel/air mixture. Following laser pulses
ignited the engine without misfiring, too. After 100 cycles the engine was stopped and the
window was disassembled. All deposits have been removed by the laser beam. Engine
operation without misfiring was always possible above certain threshold intensity at the
beam entrance window.
Comparison of laser ignition spark plug ignition with respect to reliability:

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From the graph of ignition pressure vs. air-fuel ratio it can be seen that 100% reliability
can be achieved in laser ignition at a higher air-fuel ratio of 2.05, than in spark ignition.
Hence leaner mixture can be used in laser ignition system to achieve 100% reliability.

For 100% ignition reliability at 30 bar

A/Frel = 2.05 (laser ignition)
A/Frel = 1.74 (spark ignition)

40 40
35 35
30 30
pinit (bar)

pinit (bar)
25 25
20 20
15 15
10 10
1,40 1,50 1,60 1,70 1,80 1,90 2,00 2,10 2,20 2,30 1,40 1,50 1,60 1,70 1,80 1,90 2,00 2,10 2,20 2,30
A/F rel ( ) 0,00 A/F rel ( ) 0,00
ignition reliability of laser ignition 0,25 ignition reliability of spark plug ignition 0,25
0,50 0,50
0,75 0,75
1,00 1,00

Comparison of NOx emission potentials of various ignition methods:

The graph below shows NOx emission levels in different ignition systems. It can be seen
that NOx emissions are considerably lesser in case of laser ignition system. This is due to
the fact that lean air-fuel mixtures can be burnt easily in laser ignition systems, leading to
lower combustion chamber temperatures and hence lower NOx emissions.

NOX in [mg/Nm]

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Direct Pre chamber Direct Pre chamber

Spark ignition Laser ignition Diesel pilot ignition

Pressure History in Combustion Chamber:

Below is a graph of excess pressure vs time taken for ignition at different air fuel ratio.
Consider the air/fuel ratio of 3.0 for both spark plug and laser ignition. It can be seen that
the excessive pressure in case of laser ignition is higher. Since minimum energy required
for ignition in case of laser is inversely proportional to excessive pressure, ignition takes
place faster in laser ignition system. Therefore ignition delay is less incase of laser
ignition system. This also reduces knocking tendency.

Here =air-fuel ratio

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= 2.5, laser
= 2.5, spark plug

= 3.0, laser

= 3.0, spark plug

= 3.5, laser

= 3.5, spark plug


As can be seen in the figure below the brake mean effective pressure range for misfire is
reduced in the case on laser ignition. Also knocking in case of laser ignition starts at a
higher pressure.

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Principle of Laser Ignition:

Focused laser
Convex lens

Plasma I>Ithreshold
Laser beam

flame kernel E>Eignition

Mixture burning
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Laser Arrangement with Respect to Engine:

Parts of laser ignition system

A laser ignition device for irradiating and condensing laser beams in a combustion
chamber of an internal combustion engine so as to ignite fuel particles within the
combustion chamber, includes: a laser beam generating unit for emitting the laser beams;
and a condensing optical member for guiding the laser beams into the combustion
chamber such that the laser beams are condensed in the combustion chamber

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Power source

The average power requirements for a laser spark plug are relatively modest. A four
stroke engine operating at maximum of 1200 rpm requires an ignition spark 10 times per
second or 10Hz (1200rpm/2x60). For example 1-Joule/pulse electrical diode pumping
levels we are readily able to generate high millijoule levels of Q-switched energy. This
provides us with an average power requirement for the laser spark plug of say
approximately 1-Joule times 10Hz equal to approximately 10 Watts.

Nd: YAG laser

It is the most suitable laser beam generating unit in laser ignition system. Nd: YAG
(neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet; Nd:Y3Al5O12) is a crystal that is used as
a lasing medium for solid-state lasers. The dopant, triply ionized neodymium, typically
replaces yttrium in the crystal structure of the yttrium aluminium garnet (YAG), since
they are of similar size. Generally the crystalline host is doped with around 1%
neodymium by atomic percent. They typically emit light with a wavelength of 1064 nm,
in the infrared. However, there are also transitions near 940, 1120, 1320, and 1440 nm.
Nd:YAG lasers operate in both pulsed and continuous mode. Pulsed Nd:YAG lasers are
typically operated in the so called Q-switching mode: An optical switch is inserted in the
laser cavity waiting for a maximum population inversion in the neodymium ions before it
opens. Then the light wave can run through the cavity, depopulating the excited laser
medium at maximum population inversion.

Physical and chemical properties of Nd:YAG:

Properties of YAG crystal:
Formula: Y3Al5O12
Molecular weight: 596.7
Crystal structure: Cubic
Hardness: 88.5 (Moh)

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Melting point: 1950 C (3540 F)

Density: 4.55 g/cm3
Refractive index of Nd:YAG
Wavelength (m) Index n (25C)
0.8 1.8245
0.9 1.8222
1.0 1.8197
1.2 1.8152
1.4 1.8121

Properties of Nd: YAG at 25C (with 1% Nd doping):

Formula: Y2.97Nd0.03Al5O12
Weight of Nd: 0.725%
Atoms of Nd per unit volume: 1.381020 /cm3
Emission wavelength: 1064 nm
Transition: 4F3/2 4I11/2
Duration of fluorescence: 230 s
Thermal conductivity: 0.14 Wcm1K1
Specific heat capacity: 0.59 Jg1K1
Thermal expansion: 6.9106 K1
dn/dT: 7.3106 K1
Young's modulus: 3.17104 Kg/mm2
Poisson's ratio: 0.25
Resistance to thermal shock: 790 Wm1
Combustion chamber window

Since the laser ignition system is located outside the combustion chamber a window is
required to optically couple the laser beam. The window must:
Withstand the thermal and mechanical stresses from the engine.
Withstand the high laser power.

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Exhibit low propensity to fouling.

During combustion deposits may form on the window which may be organic or
inorganic. These deposits may block the laser beam. Usually these are carbon deposits.
When laser beam passes through these deposits, they het heated up and evaporate. This
phenomenon is called ABLATION and process is called SELF CLEANING.

The photo below shows self cleaning of the window due to ablation.

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Optic fiber wire

It is used to transport the laser beam from generating unit to the focusing unit.

Focusing unit

A set of optical lenses are used to focus the laser beam into the combustion chamber. The
focal length of the lenses can be varied according to where ignition is required. The
lenses used may be either combined or separated.

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Schlieren photography is a visual process used to view the flow of fluids of varying
density. It is used to view the various stages of flame propagation after laser ignition as
shown below:

Plasma propagates towards the incoming laser beam.

Plasma had the maximum emission peak 30 ns after the laser was fired and laser
plasma UV-emission persisted for about 80 ns.

Approach for multipoint ignition

Laser ignition system can also be used for multipoint ignition in engines. The laser beam
generated will be divided 2 or more beams by means of diffraction grating. Each beam is
directed by optic fiber and focused into their respective laser spark plugs.

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Practical Laser ignition Requirements:

Mechanical Requirements:

Laser spark plug designs must perform under engine mount shock and vibration
conditions. Testing to shock and vibration specifications for engine mounted products
will help to validate the durability and design life of the laser spark plug. It appears that
large stationary Advanced Reciprocating Engines Systems (ARES) will most likely
subject the laser spark plug to substantial long term vibration and limited shock.
Automotive requirements are limited to shock and vibration compliance of random
vibration frequency testing at less than 15 gs.

Environmental Requirements:

Lasers and optical instrumentation designed for outdoor use are typically hermitically
sealed backfilled with dry inert gas. Diode Pumped Solid State Lasers are most sensitive

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to environmental temperature fluctuations as the diode pump wavelength changes with

temperature. This can be especially troublesome in Nd: YAG and other crystal host lasers
as their pump band width tends to be narrow. Glass host DPSS lasers provide broad
pump band widths allowing them to traverse through -30 to +50 degrees C temperature
operating range without the need for diode thermal conditioning.
The ideal laser spark plug requires maximum performance over large temperature ranges
with minimum thermal conditioning. Decreasing the lasers thermal conditioning
requirements makes the laser design less complicated and less expensive to build and

Peak Power Requirements:

The peak power requirements for the laser spark are relatively high. Formation of a
plasma or laser spark in free space air is not difficult if you start with Megawatt class
(nanosecond pulse width - milli joule energy level) laser pulses.
As the engine cylinder head pressure increases, the required laser pulse peak power level
for air breakdown decreases. With a multiple lens focusing system it is plausible that one
could reliably project a laser spark into a high pressure cylinder head utilizing lower
Kilowatt class pulse power densities.
Passive Q-switched lasers also allows for generation of a multiple laser pulse output or
pulse train. The first pulse of a pulse train initiates the plasma and successive pulses
feed more energy into the plasma causing the plasma to expand. For neodymium lasers
the pulses are typically separated by a few 10s of microseconds. The net result of pulse
train operation is longer sustained plasma containing higher energy.

The main advantages of laser ignition are given:

A choice of arbitrary positioning of the ignition plasma in the combustion cylinder.

Absence of quenching effects by the spark plug electrodes.

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Ignition of leaner mixtures than with the spark plug => lower combustion temperatures
=> less NOx emissions.
No erosion effects as in the case of the spark plugs => lifetime of a laser ignition system
expected to be significantly longer than that of a spark plug.
High load/ignition pressures possible => increase in efficiency.
Precise ignition timing possible.
Exact regulation of the ignition energy deposited in the ignition plasma.
Easier possibility of multipoint ignition.
Shorter ignition delay time and shorter combustion time.
Fuel-lean ignition possible.

The disadvantages of laser ignition are:

High system costs.

Concept is proven, but no commercial system available yet.


Propagation of laser pulse through fiber optics.

Development of a compact, robust and economic laser source.
Durability of windows.

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Tests were performed to gauge the performance of laser ignition system as compared to
spark igntition system, in a gasoline engine. Nd:YAG laser was used. Energy required for
ignitio with rising pressure, knocking, misfire , Nox emissions, fuel consumption,
smoothness of operation and reliabilty were studied.

The physical differences of the two ignition sources are summarized:

Apart from the differences in the plasma temperature, the different efficiency factor of the
energy output to the gas to be ignited is another and quite essential characteristic of the
laser ignition.
The following fact is quite decisive: The amount of the spark energy at the electrodes of
the classical spark ignition depends mainly on the pressure of the combustion chamber
and on the distances of the electrodes. An increase in pressure with the same electrode
distance means an increase of the required secondary voltage. The energy requirement is
exactly the opposite for generating plasma in air by means of a laser. This is another quite
essential advantage of the laser ignition concept especially for engines with high cylinder

The physical differences of the ignition systems, especially the higher temperature of the
ignition plasma in the case of laser ignition, clearly reduce the ignition delay and thus
improve the quiet running of the engine.
The position of the place of ignition for the mixture in the combustion chamber is an
equally important influence factor for the initiation of the ignition. For the laser ignition
the starting point of the ignition can be located at a defined optimal place in the
combustion chamber and in a defined flow field. In contrast to conventional spark plug
ignition, the point of ignition (spark) from a laser can be positioned at a considerable
distance from potential heat sinks thus eliminating problems involving flame kernel heat
transfer quenching common in spark plugs. High peak power laser pulses can be focused
to a point to create strong sparks with high surface area. With a homogenous distribution

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of the mixture in the engine one can hereby realize efficiency factor advantages because
of shorter flame paths. In the near full load range this will result in increased knock
resistance and thus ultimately in performance advantages.

Principle, parts, flame propagation, self cleaning, approach for multipoint ignition,
Practical Laser ignition Requirements, advantages and disadvantages of laser ignition
system were studied. Laser ignition system was found to be more advantageous than
spark ignition in some regards, but also has its disadvantages which if overcome, it can
be used for commercial applications.

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The content of this document has been derived from the following sources:

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