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Sandia, TUD optical diagnostic helps reduce emissions while improving fuel economy

A team of researchers at Sandia’s Combustion Research Facility and the Technical University of Denmark have developed an optical setup for quantitative, high-temporal resolution line-of-sight extinction imaging in harsh optical environments. The diagnostic tool can now quantify the formation of particulate matter as a function of time and space for a variety of combustion processes. The work was published in a paper in the journal Applied Optics.

Initially, the researchers have focused on the combustion of liquid fuel sprays found in engines, where the extreme pressures and temperatures create an environment that is optically challenging. To meet future particulate matter emissions mandates without sacrificing fuel savings, engine developers need advanced combustion strategies to reduce the formation of soot in spray flames.

Time sequence of images in a Sandia National Laboratories project that shows the extinction of light caused by a soot cloud formed during the injection of a diesel spray. The liquid fuel spray is seen at the bottom of the images and appears dark because the light passing through the combustion vessel is scattered by the liquid droplets. The soot cloud downstream appears dark mainly due to absorption of light by the soot particles. (Image courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories) Click to enlarge.

The acquired data provides important insights into the fuel spray motion as well as the timing and quantity of soot formed under a wide range of conditions. Engine developers can use this information to validate computer models and design advanced engine combustion strategies that will improve fuel economy for consumers while also lowering tailpipe pollutant emissions.

—Sandia researcher Scott Skeen

The optical setup was developed to quantify soot formation in high-pressure spray flames produced in Sandia’s optically accessible, constant volume, pre-burn combustion chamber.

Imaging flames at temperatures and pressures found in engines can be difficult because of a phenomenon called “beam steering.” Beam steering occurs when light passes through a medium with varying refractive indexes and is commonly observed as a “mirage” on the highway in the summer time.The hot pavement heats up nearby air, causing its refractive index to change. The sunlight changes direction as it passes from cooler air through hotter air, and these steered light rays give the impression that there is water in the road—a mirage.

In a similar way, a flame causes beam steering because of adjacent high- and low-temperature regions. The magnitude of beam steering increases significantly in an engine because of the high pressures. With optimized lighting and imaging optics, however, the effects of beam steering can be eliminated.

The special lighting was enabled by a custom engineered diffuser large enough to fill the area of Sandia’s spray combustion chamber window (4 inches or 100 millimeters). The engineered diffuser was specifically designed to emit light rays with the same brightness over a specified angular range. In this way, a light ray that gets steered as it passes through the flame will be replaced by another ray having the same intensity.

3-D rendering of the combustion vessel and diffused back-illumination extinction imaging setup. Source: Sandia. Click to enlarge.

The angle of the engineered diffuser is optimized based on the physical dimensions of the experimental facility, the magnitude of the anticipated beam steering and the collection angle of the imaging system.

Skeen noted that although new diesel vehicles are cleaner than ever before, some of the latest generation gasoline engines emit as much particulate matter as older diesel engines. The increased particulate matter can be attributed to the adoption of a gasoline direct-injection fuel system, which results in improved fuel economy and therefore lower carbon dioxide emission per mile driven.

Gasoline direct injection involves spraying high-pressure liquid gasoline directly into the engine cylinder rather than mixing and vaporizing the fuel in the intake port outside the cylinder. This method reduces heat loss and allows for freer airflow. However, this comes at the cost of higher particulate matter emissions. Unlike the smoke emitted from older diesel engines, soot emitted from gasoline direct injection engines is invisible to the naked eye because of the particles’ very small size.

The diagnostic presented in the paper allows researchers to quantify the formation of particulate matter in combusting sprays with unprecedented temporal and spatial resolution. Insights gained and data acquired from the use of this diagnostic will inform and guide researchers and automotive manufacturers toward designs that maximize fuel efficiency while minimizing harmful tailpipe emissions.

The work is a significant contribution to the Engine Combustion Network established in 2010 by Lyle Pickett at Sandia. The network promotes collaboration among engine researchers around the world. Although participation is voluntary and the network provides no financial support, more than 15 institutions have contributed experimental data.

One challenge of the wide-ranging collaborative effort within the network is the standardization of experimental diagnostics.

The optical technique developed in this work relies on light attenuation or extinction to quantify the amount of soot in a flame. As light enters the combustion vessel, it will be absorbed or scattered by soot particles. Light that is absorbed and some light that is scattered will not reach the camera sensor. This reduction in measured light intensity —relative to a clear optical path—can be related to the amount of soot present.

To make implementation of this diagnostic tool convenient for network participants, the associated publication provides detailed guidance on the necessary equipment and instruction for sizing the illumination source and collection optics. The use of a Sandia-developed LED light source, as opposed to a high-speed laser, means the cost and complexity are significantly lower.

This work aims to establish a standardized experimental method of extinction imaging that will increase the reliability and reproducibility of experimental measurements submitted to the network.

—lead author Fredrik Westlye

Authors included and Anders Ivarsson from the Technical University of Denmark and Sandia researchers Keith Penney, Lyle Pickett and Skeen and former Sandia researcher Julien Manin. The work was funded by the Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office.


  • Fredrik R. Westlye, Keith Penney, Anders Ivarsson, Lyle M. Pickett, Julien Manin, and Scott A. Skeen (2017) “Diffuse back-illumination setup for high temporally resolved extinction imaging,” Appl. Opt. 56, 5028-5038 doi: 10.1364/AO.56.005028


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