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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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Latest Innovation Could Ignite Automotive And Airline Industries

Latest Innovation Could Ignite Automotive And Airline Industries

The basic principles of the internal combustion engine have not changed a lot since the technology was invented. However, just because the technology is old does not mean that evolutionary refinements cannot make it more effective. And that basic idea has important implications for investors.

Case in point is laser ignited internal combustion engines.

A standard internal combustion engine relies on a spark plug which is necessarily housed on the top of a combustion chamber. As a result, the explosion from the spark igniting the fuel-air mixture is incomplete, which leads to wasted fuel. Related: Korea Leaves West Behind In Fuel Cell Race

Lasers present a way to get around this issue. A laser can be used to ignite the fuel air mixture from the center of a combustion chamber which ensures better fuel efficiency – specifically, an efficiency gain of 27 percent.

All of this was merely theoretical until a few years ago, when a team of researchers working with Toyota, and supported by the Japanese government, announced that they had created a working prototype. The technology worked but, likely due to cost and size concerns, nothing was done with it, at least initially.

Recently, however, a team at Princeton Optronics reinvigorated excitement around laser based ignition by building a working prototype of the system. More importantly, the venture-backed company built the prototype using only a relatively small $150,000 research grant from the US government.

The fact that the company is venture-backed means that this technology will not just sit in a lab somewhere – it has a better chance of becoming commercialized. And the fact that the prototype cost less than $150K to build suggests that mass manufacturing costs will be reasonable enough to attract the attention of big companies. Related: Could Middle East Switch From Oil To Renewable Superpower?

Finally, the grant that the research company, Princeton Optronics obtained is called an SBIR grant or Small Business Innovation Research grant. These grants are specifically designed to promote commercialization of new technologies. SBIRs ramp up over time to enable easier commercialization of new technologies like laser ignition. In light of that, the company has a clear path to develop a real product around this tech or license the technology to a large manufacturer.

Automakers around the world today are looking for every opportunity to squeeze efficiency improvement out of their engines. But they are not the only ones that could use technology like this. Firms like Caterpillar, Cummins, John Deere, and Babcok & Wilcox would all undoubtedly be interested. These firms make very large engines which move massive machines from construction equipment to large ships and so fuel efficiency matters a lot. Jet engine companies like Rolls Royce, General Electric, and United Technologies are also likely to be interested.

Of course, it is too early to say which firms will capitalize on this new technology, but a 27 percent improvement in efficiency could lead to a major profit bump. Take airlines for example. The cost for fuel on the average flight is about 29 percent of revenue according to US Airways and consulting firm Oliver Wyman. As a result, if laser ignited engines were used in all of an airline’s planes, the firm would theoretically see profits jump almost 8 percent overnight. Related: How Long Can OPEC Maintain Its Current Strategy?

At this stage, most investors cannot invest directly in laser ignition technology or Princeton Optronics. However, if the company can commercialize its technology it will have a massive market to tap into.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • No Exxon For Me on June 05 2015 said:
    Mike thank you for your article. Very interesting. A 29% efficiency gain due to incomplete combustion seem rather high for an internal combustion engine. Can't believe we are burning up 29% of our fuel in the exhaust system catalytic converter. I could believe perhaps 2.9%. Jet engines and internal combustion engines are worlds apart so I'm not sure the 29% figure if real could be applied across these different engine applications. Still thank you for your article. Certainly something to keep an eye on.
  • No Exxon For Me on June 05 2015 said:
    Mike, I did not read all your back up info before I wrote. The 27% efficiency gain seems to be related to leaning out the air fuel mixture and burning a lower fuel concentration mixture. There may be something there, however the question then would be, if I burn less fuel do I end up with less energy produced and net work done? Again thank you for your article.
  • Daniel G on June 06 2015 said:
    I see that our comments about diesel and jet engines and how this has NO APPLICATION whatsoever has somehow disappeared so I'll say it agin. Diesel ignites by compression and jets are on a continuous ignition cycle once started. This has absolutly no application to either engine families.
    Mr McDonald is evidently NOT a mechanic or machinist he is an
    assistant professor of finance. Ever get your hands dirty changing your own oil by any chance? DOUBT IT.
  • Alan on June 07 2015 said:
    I must agree with No Exxon. If you are talking about overall thermal efficiency, any more than a fraction of one percent seems optimistic. Perhaps the 27% figure represents some measure of spark or ignition efficiency?

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