Due to several recent developments in lasers and optics, laser igniters can now be designed to be (i) compact so as to have the same footprint as a standard spark plug, (ii) have low power draw, usually less than 50 Watts, and (iii) have vibration and temperature resistance at levels typical of reciprocating engines. Primary advantages of these laser igniters remain (i) extension of lean or dilution limits for ignition of combustible mixtures, and (ii) improved ignition at higher pressures.
Recently, tests performed in a 350 kW 6-cylinder stationary natural gas reciprocating engine retrofitted with these igniters showed an extension of the operational envelope to yield efficiency improvements of the order of 2.6% points while being compliant with the mandated emission regulations. Even though laser igniters offer promise, fouling of the final optical element that introduces the laser into the combustion chamber is of concern. After performing a thorough literature search, a test plan was devised to evaluate various fouling mitigation strategies. The final approach that was used is a combination of three strategies and helped sustain an optical transmissivity exceeding 98% even after 1500 hrs. of continuous engine operation at 2400 rpm. Based on the observed trend in transmissivity, it now appears that laser igniters can last up to 6000 hrs. of continuous engine operation in a stationary engine running at 1800 rpm.