All it takes is a billionth of a second. The result may be as much as a 50% reduction in NOx as well as significant reductions of greenhouse gases and particulates, depending on engine types and configurations. “Our electric device produces pulses for a billionth of a second, producing a non-thermal plasma that reacts with and decomposes pollutants, as well as fundamentally altering the combustion process,” says Dan Singleton, CEO of Transient Plasma Systems (TPS), which this year won the Orcelle Award.

“It’s cold to the touch and visible to the naked eye,” he adds of the technology that in a few short years has gone from a fridge-sized piece of equipment to a device that fits in the palm of your hand. In the future, a simple rod in the exhaust pipe could become a go-to technology as emissions rules tighten.

It’s exactly the kind of let’s-look-at-this-again approach to problems that the Orcelle Award aims to recognise.

“Transient Plasma Systems is a brilliant solution with so many possible applications,” says Ray Fitzgerald, WWL President of Atlantic. “We saw its possibilities in our own business for better engine performance and also for cleaner emissions.”

Better engine performance is the second reason ship owners and operators have taken note of TPS’s work: using the technology as non-thermal ignition and to treat the exhaust directly.

In testing, the method has proved superior to traditional thermal ignition that has been around for more than a century. “Old-fashioned ignition is like sitting there with a match waiting to get the fire going,” says Singleton, who earned his PhD at the University of Southern California. “With our technology 60% of the energy – rather than just 1% – goes into the ignition process, making the combustion chemistry much quicker.”

That too has an impact on emissions, as it’s the heat that produces much of the NOx in the first place. Yet an equal if not more important advantage is being fuel-agnostic. “When we’re able to ignite faster, we can ignite fuel-air mixtures that are usually difficult or impossible for thermal ignition to ignite,” Singleton says. The ignition can thus work with practically any fuel. TPS has already put jet fuel, gasoline and natural gas through their paces in the lab with encouraging results.

While there are several potential applications in the power plant market, it’s primarily the shipping industry that is paying attention, Singleton says. In the long term, innovations such as TPS could help shipping on its way to zero emissions, even though that target is a while away yet. As WWL’s Fitzgerald explains, “The preferred answer would be as soon as possible, but we have to be pragmatic. When we look to the future and articulate this ambition, we believe that it will be possible to achieve a zero-emissions shipping and logistics industry within the next 30 years.” 

And if TPS has come just in time for shipping’s needs, the USD 100,000 grant money was just in time for TPS’s needs as the company moves into commercialisation. “We have been growing very organically, but we’re beginning to accelerate,” Singleton says. “Our biggest shortage is that we have so many exciting things to develop right now and we need more people.”