Christopher A. Sawyer
It sounded like something out of the movie Tucker. A person from outside the industry comes to Detroit to present his technology to one of the domestic automakers with the hope of opening a dialog that might eventually lead to a contract, or at least more discussion. He brings the technology–in this case, an ignition module–with him so the OEM can test it on its own dynos, and provides results from tests conducted on the manufacturer's vehicles. Yet, once past the platform level, the upper echelons tell him how his own technology works without seeing it, show no curiosity at all, and show him the door. The Not Invented Here syndrome claims yet another victim.
Ulf Arens, president and CEO of Ignition Solutions (San Diego, CA) was shocked at his reception. "One guy even went so far as to tell me, ‘I know how your system works, you obviously don't. So I'll explain it to you.' The arrogance was incredible," he says. The explanation consisted of an insistence that Arens' Plasma Booster ignition module was advancing the ignition timing, which increased the horsepower, torque and fuel economy of the manufacturer's V8 engine. "I told him that wasn't possible since my system doesn't touch anything until the engine controller tells the ignition to make a spark," he says. "Yet, this person insisted that it was ‘very obvious' that all I was doing was advancing the timing." The trouble is, in a way, both are right.
It's true that Arens' Plasma Booster doesn't affect when the spark takes place, and therefore doesn't affect ignition timing in the conventional sense. However, by enhancing the spark amperage, the unit does advance the initial phase of combustion by creating a faster flame front and quicker light-off of the mixture kernel. "As the power transistor in the ignition system is turning off," Arens says, "the Plasma Booster steps in and reverses the polarity for a very short time–about 20 to 40 microseconds." The reverse polarity creates a peak current about twice as high as the six amps of coil current on the primary side, and a higher peak-to-peak current on the secondary side. "The first spark jumps from the center electrode to the ground electrode of the plug," says Arens, "while the next jumps from the ground electrode to the center electrode. This continues, and produces anywhere from 15 to 30 sparks in an extremely short timeframe." And he claims his enhancement of the spark amperage comes about by using nearly the same amount of energy supplied by the OEM ignition system. "One of the side-effects of the standard ignition unit generating a hotter initial spark has been long duration spark events," he says. "By shortening the duration, and essentially moving current forward in the combustion event, I've been able to create both a higher initial current and multiple sparks from nearly the same energy output."
Arens understands the pessimism with which ideas outside the industry norm are viewed, especially ignition systems, and makes concessions for those unwilling or unable to believe his does what he claims. "Aftermarket ignition systems haven't increased performance in cases other than a high-compression engine that needs a higher voltage system," he says. "And every backyard mechanic has a new twist in ignition technology." Only Arens isn't a backyard mechanic. He completed a three-year vocational training program at Mercedes-Benz in six months. He has a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Hamburg, and a master's degree from the same institution based on his graduate thesis:: "The Influence of High-Performance Ignition Systems on Power and Emissions." It was the latter item that set him on his present course.
"In 1988, a high-performance engine running 6,000 rpm with a spark duration of one millisecond rotated 36°º during the spark event," he says. "Yet, manufacturers were insisting they needed 3 milliseconds–108°º of crank rotation–to ignite the air/fuel mixture properly. By that time, the piston has moved so far from top dead center, no work of any value was being performed." Arens built himself a special ignition system that let him artificially reduce spark duration, and set out to test his thesis. He was able to reduce duration to 50 microseconds without inducing a misfire. "I spent many years researching the phases of the spark," he says, "and determined that the initial phase–about 100 microseconds long–is the breakdown phase, and had been enhanced in the past by adding secondary capacitors." His patent research showed that some of these systems had a limited effect, though others–especially the ones used on lean-burn engines–could have a dramatic effect on the combustion process. However, the level of electromagnetic interference created by these systems made them incompatible with today's highly computerized vehicles. It was in looking for a design that would enhance the spark without affecting these systems that Arens came upon the concept behind the Plasma Booster–enhancing spark amperage with nearly the same amount of energy supplied by the OEM ignition system.
"My research showed that you only need about 0.3 milli-joules of energy to ignite a perfect stoichiometric air-fuel mixture," Arens says. Yet modern ignition systems supply 20 to 50 milli-joules of energy, meaning there's plenty of energy available. Where that led to was studying the effect of amperage on mixture ignition, and the Plasma Booster itself.
Testing has produced interesting results. On a stock V8, built by the same company that refused to deal with him, Arens was able to increase torque output by 2.8%, horsepower by 3.2%–an average of 5.6 lb.-ft. of torque and 4.6 hp. over the rpm range–and increase mileage by 0.73% on a standard FTP test cycle. Hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide also dropped, though nitrous oxide emissions increased. "The engine had 2,000 miles on it, and we did nothing but add the Plasma Booster to it," says Arens. "I believe that it's possible to keep the NOx emissions under control–by changing the cross-over point between the intake and exhaust cam timing as well as altering the engine timing–while keeping the other benefits intact." He also believes the effect on engines with variable valve timing will be even greater.
To help prove his point, a baseline test on a similar V8 in a different car was also performed. Then the timing was adjusted (advanced 5°º from manufacturer specs) to optimize torque and horsepower before the Plasma Booster was added. Contrary to the opinions of his corporate detractors, torque and horsepower increased. Not satisfied, the timing was adjusted again (retarded 2°º from the previous optimized setting), and output measured. "We ended up with a gain of 22 lb.-ft. of torque and 18 hp, and make more torque from 0 to 3,000 rpm than the 4-valve version of the same engine," he says with only slightly diminished exuberance.
Similar results have been obtained on other engines, including a six-cylinder BMW 3 Series engine (a 4-hp gain) and a two-stroke Yamaha ATV engine (a 5-hp gain). As Arens predicted, NOx emissions did not go up in every case. "It's all down to how the camshaft and ignition timing are set," he says. "I believe that in order to optimize ignition, the timing has to be retarded on almost every engine." And the cost of this technology? Arens claims that, in volume production, the OEM could add the Plasma Booster to his current system for about $1/car without having to add a separate box under the hood. Though it is a claim that, for now, is unsubstantiated. "If someone can prove me wrong," he says, "then they should do it. I'll gladly find something else to do with the rest of my life. But don't tell me it's not possible when the main effort so far has been to prove there is no way in which I could be right."
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