A quantum afterburner extracts laser light from vehicle exhaust.
The last leap forward: Ottos first four stroke engine of 1876.
Courtesy of Deutz Canada Inc.
The hot gases belching out of your cars exhaust are not just useless waste. They are a laser waiting to happen, says physicist Marlan Scully1.
All you need to harness this potential, suggests Scully, of Texas A&M University in College Station, is a quantum afterburner. This hypothetical modification would use quantum mechanics to boost the engines efficiency by clawing back waste heat and turning it into useful energy - laser light.
Engine efficiency is an old problem. The scientists who investigated it during the Industrial Revolution created the discipline called thermodynamics, which describes how heat flows from place to place.
In the early nineteenth century, the French engineer Nicholas Léonard Sadi Carnot calculated the maximum work available from an engine in which heating a gas through a cycle of expansion and contraction drives the motion of a piston.
Scully has taken a fresh look at the efficiency of such a cyclical process, not in a Carnot engine, but in an Otto engine. Devised in 1876 by Nikolaus Otto, this system forms the basis of todays four-stroke internal-combustion engine.
In the Otto engine, a moving piston sucks fuel into a cylinder and then compresses it. The fuel is ignited and expands, pushing the piston outwards. The piston then expels the spent exhaust gases.
PHILIP BALL | © Nature News Service
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