ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Pulstar spark plug is rising from the ashes with an upgraded, longer-lasting product that delivers a charge 20,000 times more powerful than a standard spark plug.
The homegrown Albuquerque technology gained national traction a few years ago, with Pulstar plugs on sale at thousands of Advance Auto Parts and O’Reilly Automotive stores across the country. It also made significant inroads into the auto racing industry through backing by two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. and a partnership with the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association.
But the company, then called Enerpulse Inc., stalled out in late 2017, hurt by the aftermath of the Great Recession, costly marketing, and expensive, unsuccessful efforts to get the Pulstar plugged directly into vehicles on automotive assembly lines.
In addition, the average consumer wanted longer-lasting plugs with no increase in the $15.95-per-plug retail price, said company founder Lou Camilli, who originally launched Enerpulse in 1996.
Now, Camilli has a new partner – New Jersey-based technology investment firm Passaic River Capital LLC – giving the 72-year-old inventor and his company a fresh jolt of energy.
In early 2019, the partners bought out the assets of Enerpulse, including a full manufacturing suite in a 13,000-square-foot facility near the Albuquerque International Sunport. And, following nearly a year of research and development, they relaunched the firm as Pulstar LLC, sporting significant product upgrades that Camilli says will meet consumer demand for a longer-lasting “pulse plug” with an unchanged price tag.
“Enerpulse had dwindled down and eventually closed its doors,” Camilli told the Journal. “We acquired the assets and then took some time to get reorganized with an improved product before reopening. It’s kind of like rising from the ashes.”
The new product uses iridium, a hard, dense material with an extremely high melting point that allows it to resist corrosion and erosion in today’s high-temperature engines, giving it a longer life with better performance, Camilli said. They also rebuilt the plug insulator to make it sturdier with a more robust ceramic encasing.
Passaic River Capital says it’s pleased with the improved product.
“Lou and his team of engineers have responded to our challenge: extend the life of the Pulstar plug while improving the benefits Pulstar customers have come to love,” Passaic Managing Member Liore Alroy said in a statement.
Those benefits include “more power, more torque, quicker starts, smoother shifting, less fuel consumption and lower emissions,” Alroy said.
The foundational technology remains the same. It relies on “pulsed power” to deliver a blast of energy when hitting the ignition, creating an electrical charge that the company claims is 20,000 times more powerful than the energy released with a standard spark plug.
The Pulstar, which is about the size and shape of a normal spark plug, includes a built-in capacitor that gathers and stores an electric charge from a vehicle’s battery. When the operator turns the ignition, it immediately releases a massive pulse of power that greatly increases vehicle acceleration and pull, providing better performance and using less gasoline.
The new iridium-based product enhances those benefits while significantly prolonging pulse-plug life. Company testing shows that the upgraded plug has a 35% higher resistance to fracture, very low error rates, and cycle-to-cycle electrical discharge consistency, Camilli said.
“It’s the best performance we’ve ever seen,” he said. “We think customers will love them.”
The newly relaunched company also has a significantly-modified business strategy that targets car and motorcycle enthusiasts and relies entirely on e-commerce.
“We do all our sales now through the Internet,” Camilli said. “It’s not a product that you’d see on an automotive store counter and decide to buy it. It’s a well thought-out purchase by people looking for this type of thing.”
The racing industry remains a natural target customer, along with motorcycle owners.
“They’re enthusiasts and they love what we do, so we’re focusing on those guys,” Camilli said.
The company is also heavily targeting natural gas-based engines in industrial markets.
“Those are big machines, and if they can save say 1.5% on fuel with our spark plugs, it adds up over time,” Camilli said. “Those machines operate 24/7 and they run incredibly rough and noisy. Our plugs smooth out the engine and use less fuel.”
The company now employs four people, down from about 20 under Enerpulse.
“We have the capacity to produce up to 5,000 plugs per month with our current workforce,” Camilli said. “But we have the equipment and plant to produce a lot more, so if demand grows, we’ll add more people.”
Camilli has had a long career. He earned a degree in mathematics from Texas A&M. He played Major League Baseball from 1968-1974 as an infielder for the Cleveland Indians. And he worked as an investment banker until the mid-1980s, when he conceived of pulse plugs and then sought Sandia National Laboratories’ assistance to develop the technology.
But he has no thoughts of retiring.
“I’m employing people and helping families,” Camilli said. “We have a good product, we provide discounts for the military, and that gives me a place in the world that makes me feel good. Besides, as my grandfather used to say, you always need a reason to get up in the morning.”