Atlas F1 Adding a Spark to F1

  by Charles Burckmyer, U.S.A.

Given the field's significance to motorsport, it's surprising how little attention is given to the ignition side of engine management systems. Graham Western of EFI lamented to this end in RaceCar Engineering, v7n3: "It constantly amazes me how the importance of electrical energy and a strong spark doesn't seem to be appreciated."

One US engineer is likely to change such attitudes with a system designed to revolutionize the management of Formula One engines. The ambition of Ed VanDyne - who managed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's racing team, and who's company, Adrenaline Research, has been developing sophisticated vehicle electronics for almost a decade - is to produce an ignition that takes advantage of each cylinder's combustion potential.

From an electronic standpoint, a conventional racing ignition is an inefficient device. Typical ignitions use a coil to generate the large voltage necessary to bridge the spark plug gap under pressure, but the impedance associated with the high voltage coil makes for very poor energy transfer. Further, the spark itself is small and often poorly delivered, producing small flame kernels and a delayed start in combustion. This produces large variations in combustion from one cycle to the next. Finally, a traditional ignition and ECU do not have the diagnostic information available to modulate firing parameters in response to the immediate engine combustion conditions. This shortcoming results is wasted fuel and reduced power.

VanDyne set out to address the problems of racing ignitions on a conceptual basis, ignoring the precepts of customary technology. If a system could separate the gap breakdown (high voltage) phase of the spark from the current delivery, VanDyne reasoned, that system could potentially generate a much larger spark for less energy. Further, if that system could monitor the combustion event within each cylinder, it could time the spark to produce maximum torque and to control adverse conditions such as detonation and misfire. At the Formula One level, these advances could improve horsepower by 3-5%, or 24-40 bhp.

Anyone who has tried to test an ailing ignition for spark knows that a conventional spark isn't very impressive looking. Yet few have challenged the conventional system's functionality, because few realize how important a spark's physical appearance and size really are in an engine. While VanDyne was working with the MIT racing team, however, he observed some tests in the University's gas turbine laboratory. There he and his team discovered the significance of photons-light energy-on combustion. The lab had managed to run a gas turbine engine by bombarding it with photons alone, without any direct form of ignition.

While at MIT, VanDyne also met Stefan Psinger, who was doing spark plug research for Bosch in the Sloan automotive lab at MIT. Psinger's research included films of cylinders firing, shot within the cylinder. Both engineers noticed how a spark plug that had a j-gap ground electrode had a dramatically smaller flame kernel, and propagated the flame much slower than did surface-gapped plugs. VanDyne recognized that the results of the two experiments were similar in that the amount of plasma the air/fuel mixture was visually exposed to had a tremendous impact on ignition performance.

VanDyne decided to try to develop a system that would produce a large plasma spark, emitting a massive quantity of light energy in addition to heat from the electricity. He had already concluded that the system needed to separate the high-voltage phase of the ignition from the high-current phase.

To generate the energy levels needed to produce a plasma spark, however, VanDyne found that massive coils and capacitors were traditionally used. This posed a significant problem, from both an efficiency and packaging standpoint. VanDyne and Adrenaline's Co-Founder Paul Porreca researched the problem, and discovered a system whereby drastically smaller components could be used. They decided to employ a strobe circuit with the small components producing high current along with capacitive discharge to produce high voltage to produce the plasma spark.

They succeeded in producing a massive spark for the same overall energy as a conventional spark, and the system proved much more effective at igniting the air/fuel mixture. Further, the package was not significantly larger than a conventional ignition.

The system still lacked advanced control, however. VanDyne and Porreca worked over a misfire detection circuit used by Saab. It employed a simple design that used ionic conductivity to detect misfires. Porreca and VanDyne rationalized the system by which this was accomplished, and quickly devised their own circuitry.

Their system did not simply measure whether or not there was a misfire, however. The circuit they designed enabled the spark plug to detect full ionization curves for each cycle, data which could be correlated to cylinder pressure and used for engine tuning diagnostics. Using their ionization feedback, Adrenaline has developed a system that, when integrated to the cusomer's ECU, can monitor and control individual cylinder firings, adjusting the plasma spark timing, injector pulsewidth, and air/fuel ratio-on an individual cylinder, individual cycle basis.

Because of their design successes, and because their system has had tremendous appeal in test sessions, Adrenaline's SmartFire Plasma-12 ignition is currently under consideration at several F1 teams. A major racing electronics supplier is also considering a strategic partnership with Adrenaline for a more universally deliverable product. Which companies decide to move first is uncertain, but the sure thing is that SmartFire will be making cars faster in Formula One races to come.

Charles Burckmyer© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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Charles Burckmyer is an American F1 fan who recently landed a job at Adrenaline. He has been to the Skip Barber racing school and considers himself a racer by nature.