I attended a panel discussion Wednesday night at UC Irvine on the future of the automobile, part of OCTANe‘s clean tech program. There was a series of presentations on hybrids, plug in hybrids, all-electric vehicles, and fuel cell vehicles, from some of the most respected names in advanced automotive design, representing some of the world’s biggest car companies. Each one of those technologies represents a sea change in the way cars drive, and by extension, in the way we live. It was exciting, heady stuff.
And then there was the spark plug guy.
The Spark Plug Guy
The last panelist to speak, Stephen Smith of Enerpulse, looks like a cross between an accountant and a mechanic. His PowerPoint presentation was sub par, compared to the executives from GM, Honda and Toyota. Even his bio was smushed down at the bottom of the program handout. I mentally rolled my eyes when he started talking about his company, which makes spark plugs. After listening to one speech after another about our exciting high-tech and carbon-free future, they bring out this guy to talk about spark plugs??
But as he continued, I realized Smith may be the most innovative and “green” executive in the room. Enerpulse makes a new type of spark plug, called the Pulstar, which builds up an electric charge in a capacitor in the plug. The plug releases that charge each time the plug fires, creating a bigger burst of electrical energy at the electrode tip than a standard plug. The result is a more rapid and efficient combustion of the fuel-air mixture in the engine, making the engine more fuel efficient and powerful. Cars and trucks using Pulstar spark plugs increased fuel efficiency an average of 6 percent, while increasing horsepower an average of 9 percent, according to Smith. The company has been road testing a Pulstar-equipped Mercury Grand Marque with 80,000+ miles on it that still gets better mileage than the MPG it was rated at when they bought it.
Now, you might think: 6 percent? That’s nothing compared to the promise of fuel cells that operate on air and hydrogen and produce only water as exhaust! Or all electric vehicles that run off your wall socket and emit nothing! But to be widely adopted, those cars will require vast changes in infrastructure, in our electrical grid, as well as advances in battery design, and the technology behind fuel cells.
Meanwhile, nearly everyone drives gasoline powered cars that have, fastened to the engine block, spark plugs. And if each one of us replaced those old spark plugs with the Pulstar — something a heck of a lot more feasible than everyone buying an electric car tomorrow, or even a decade from now — we would decrease global CO2 emissions by 200 million metric tons a year in this country alone. From company press materials:
If, during the normal replacement cycle, PULSTAR replaced spark plugs, 250 million existing cars per year could reduce fuel consumption by an average of 6% or 22.5 billion gallons (536 million barrels). Since each gallon of gasoline (6.3 lbs/gallon) generates almost 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, a potential contributor to global warming, pulse plugs alone could actually reduce this greenhouse gas by 450 billion pounds (200 million metric tons) within four years. Extrapolated to the worldwide replacement of spark plugs, pulse plugs could potentially reduce CO2 emissions by an estimated 1 billion metric tons per year.
A Better Mousetrap
What makes Enerpulse’s product so revolutionary, is that they took a basic, largely overlooked component of the automobile — one that has remained virtually unchanged since its invention — and re-invented it.
I am a big supporter of the eventual switch to electrical, or even fuel cell vehicles. Every major car company has an EV in the pipeline, and we should start seeing them on the road with some frequency by the middle of the next decade. But between now and the day when we all drive EVs, we’re going to need companies like Enerpulse, not only in the auto industry, but every industry, figuring out how to make a better mousetrap.
Or spark plug.