For 13 years, Ed VanDyne has been trying to light a fire under the auto industry establishment. A SmartFire, to be precise.

Finally, interest is heating up. “The ignition system today has become a commodity,” says VanDyne, president and CEO of Adrenaline Research Inc., developer of SmartFire plasma ignition control software.

“The design is 100 years old. Yes, it's been refined. But it's 100-year-old technology.”

Times are changing. Auto makers are being squeezed by pending restrictions on tailpipe emissions and the conflicting market demand for more horsepower.

Enter Motorola Automotive. The electronics giant has acquired a license to produce Adrenaline's technology and is pursuing production deals with a pair of OEMs, Ward's learns. Motorola and Adrenaline won't name them but say the technology will debut “within the next three years.” Volkswagen AG is among several OEMs evaluating SmartFire.

Using patented circuitry, SmartFire marries the properties of ionization feedback with a plasma spark from a projected surface gap non-resistor plug.

This interaction affords simultaneous monitoring — in real time — of every combustion event in every cylinder.

The result is a 100% sampling rate for occurrences such as knock and misfire. When anomalies are identified, the SmartFire system responds appropriately.

In case of misfire, SmartFire restores preferred balance to the air-fuel ratio by initiating an additional spark and igniting the residual fuel.

“We can do knock detection over the full range of the engine,” VanDyne says, claiming accurate measurement is possible at up to 9,000 rpm.

The tired and expensive method of drilling into a block to insert sensors makes for distorted data. Adrenaline's system uses spark plugs as listening devices.

“Everyone else does knock detection by trying to measure the block to see if they can hear these vibrations. Sometimes when a valve hits a valve seat, it can set up that same vibration. We're measuring the vibration of pressure directly.”

Adrenaline currently is helping a Le Mans racing team with engine calibration. “We're working with them on the dyno,” VanDyne says. “Not in the race car — yet.”

That's because Adrenaline sells only the test system, which is why it hooked up with Motorola. The electronics giant wants to expand its powertrain business.

Its goal is “to achieve as many OEM applications as there is need for such a powerful technology,” the supplier says.

“Motorola is developing the in-car system that works as a plasma ignition with only the knock and misfire detection features,” VanDyne says. “The engine management features are coming after.”

The prospect of having advanced in-car detection systems appears to bode well for auto makers because the technology potentially is cost-neutral.

One OEM uses four oxygen sensors, each costing $40, VanDyne says. But SmartFire — which is costlier than a standard system, he admits — reduces reliance on additional sensors. “All we have to do is eliminate half of them (O2 sensors), and we've paid for our ignition,” he says.

“And just the value of the knock sensing alone, in something like a Ford Mustang, this could be worth 50 hp. Right now, auto makers are having to do a very conservative knock calibration because above 4,000 rpm, they can't use the knock sensors that they've got.”

And its potential impact on emissions is equally significant. “The catalytic converter does absolutely nothing for the first six to 10 seconds of operation. Just by reducing how much (fuel) we inject between cranking and 30 seconds of operation … we can cut the (hydrocarbon) emissions by 15%.”

The jury is out. “We found out in special tests that during cold start, the plasma system was better,” an OEM researcher says.

But 100-year-old habits die hard.

“Automotive engineers are very conservative,” he says. “They don't like to change anything that's not necessary.”