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Exhaust gases: combustion engine looks for answers

on September 15 2020 | in Highlights, Industry news, Latest news | by | with Comments Off

One hundred to one – that’s the ratio of petrol- and diesel-powered to hybrid or all-electric SUVs registered with the NZ Transport Agency since the beginning of 2017.

It’s actually closer to 100/0.5. In theory, a single hybrid/electric SUV would still be in bits and pieces on the assembly line by the time the 100th conventional SUV was logged with the NZTA.

Of the 235,000 SUVs registered in the past 44 months, just over 10,000 were hybrids or EVs. That’s 4 per cent – 96 per cent ran petrol or diesel engines.

Here’s the breakdown of the 10,000. Significantly, Mitsubishi and Toyota/Lexus have around 80 per cent of their respective segments. The leading sellers are in brackets:

• Battery electric (EV): 1288 (Hyundai Kona 654, Tesla Model X 261).

• Plug-in petrol hybrid: 1594 (Mitsubishi Outlander 1294, Porsche Cayenne 58)

• Plug-in diesel hybrid: 19 (Audi Q7, the only such model)

• Petrol hybrid: 7137 (Toyota RAV4 4556, combined Lexus models 1135, Kia Niro 750)

Just over 550,000 new vehicles have been registered in New Zealand in the past three years and eight months: 159,871 in 2017, 161,519 in 2018, 154,479 in 2019, and a covid-strangled 76,422 to the end of August this year.

If there’s any segment in need of cleaner-burning powertrains it’s the SUV, chockablock as it is with aerodynamic clodhoppers that, by and large, keep gaining weight with each new model.

And it appears carmakers are suddenly about to face tougher environmental times. A draft document expected to be released by the European Union (EU) next week proposes even stricter passenger vehicle emissions regulations than those already in place.

Reports in Europe say it outlines plans over the next 10 years to cut new-car emissions by 50 per cent from the 2021 Euro 6d limit of 95 grams per kilometre, a further 12.5 per cent cut on original plans.

That would limit emissions from 2030 on to around 50gr/km, a restriction that would pretty much end the life of internal combustion engines. From the end of next year all new passenger vehicles sold in Europe will have to abide by Euro 6d.

The European Environment Agency says there’s no way to meet the new limit without a sharp upswing in sales of zero- and low-emission vehicles. Deliveries of EVs and PHEVs totalled 565,000 in Europe in 2019, a 60 per cent hike on 2018 numbers and around 4 per cent of the last year’s overall 15.3m vehicles.

But cleaner-burning development of the combustion engine continues. One way is to mix more air with fuel during combustion, known as a “lean burn.” But traditional spark plugs don’t work in air-diluted mixtures.

They transfer energy too slowly and the extra air acts like a thermal sink and absorbs some of the energy released during combustion. This lowers the combustion temperature, which is critical to boosting an engine’s efficiency and reducing its emissions.

A combustion specialist in the USA has developed an ignition system that works by condensing megawatts of power into nanosecond pulses of plasma created from ionizing the air around the plug’s electrodes – power released hundreds of times faster than the speed of lightning.

Dan Singleton is the CEO and cofounder of California company Transient Plasma Systems. He told website Wired that his company’s system consists of a power supply that looks a bit like an internet router.

It is connected to a series of plasma plugs in each cylinder of the engine. The power supply banks energy from the car’s battery and releases it through the plugs in an ultrafast burst of blue plasma.

It’s a low-energy, low-temperature version of more energetic pulsed power systems like rail guns and the lasers that physicists use to simulate nuclear blasts.

The main difference between the plasma plug and conventional spark plugs is that it doesn’t ignite a combustion reaction by transferring heat. In fact, it doesn’t have enough thermal energy to even light a match.

Instead, it directly bombards the air molecules with electrons to break them into more reactive elements, like atomic oxygen. This rapid infusion of non-thermal energy causes the molecules to slam together in the fuel mixture, which kicks off the combustion reaction. If a conventional spark plug is like a lighter, Singleton’s plasma plug is more like a lightning bolt.

The key breakthrough was in solid-state high-voltage switches that emerged in the early 2000s. Advancements in switching technology now allow Singleton’s pulsed plasma system to switch megawatts of power in nanoseconds and last for hundreds of thousands of shots.

For the past few years, Transient Plasma Systems has been working with several undisclosed carmakers. He says he is optimistic that the first cars to use the system could be on the road within the next five years.


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