Introduction to How Car Engines Work
The purpose of a gasoline car engine is to convert gasoline into motion so that your car can move. Currently the easiest way to create motion from gasoline is to burn the gasoline inside an engine. Therefore, a car engine is an internal combustion engine — combustion takes place internally. Two things to note:
* There are different kinds of internal combustion engines. Diesel engines are one form and gas turbine engines are another. See also the articles on HEMI engines, rotary engines and two-stroke engines. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
ï‚· There is such a thing as an external combustion engine. A steam engine in old-fashioned trains and steamboats is the best example of an external combustion engine. The fuel (coal, wood, oil, whatever) in a steam engine burns outside the engine to create steam, and the steam creates motion inside the engine. Internal combustion is a lot more efficient (takes less fuel per mile) than external combustion, plus an internal combustion engine is a lot smaller than an equivalent external combustion engine. This explains why we don’t see any cars from Ford and GM using steam engines.
Almost all cars currently use what is called a four-stroke combustion cycle to convert gasoline into motion. The four-stroke approach is also known as the Otto cycle, in honor of Nicholas Otto, who invented it in 1867. The four strokes are:
1. The piston starts at the top, the intake valve opens, and the piston moves down to let the engine take in a cylinder-full of air and gasoline. This is the intake stroke. Only the tiniest drop of gasoline needs to be mixed into the air for this to work
2. Then the piston moves back up to compress this fuel/air mixture. Compression makes the explosion more powerful.
3. When the piston reaches the top of its stroke, the spark plug emits a spark to ignite the gasoline. The gasoline charge in the cylinder explodes, driving the piston down.
4. Once the piston hits the bottom of its stroke, the exhaust valve opens and the exhaust leaves the cylinder to go out the tailpipe.
Now the engine is ready for the next cycle, so it intakes another charge of air and gas.
Notice that the motion that comes out of an internal combustion engine is rotational, while the motion produced by a potato cannon is linear. In an engine the linear motion of the pistons is converted into rotational motion by the crankshaft. The rotational motion is nice because we plan to turn (rotate) the car’s wheels with it anyway.
Basic Engine Parts
The core of the engine is the cylinder, with the piston moving up and down inside the cylinder. The picture is of one cylinder. That is typical of most lawn mowers, but most cars have more than one cylinder (four, six and eight cylinders are common). In a multi-cylinder engine, the cylinders usually are arranged in one of three ways: inline, V or flat.
Different configurations have different advantages and disadvantages in terms of smoothness, manufacturing cost and shape characteristics. These advantages and disadvantages make them more suitable for certain vehicles.
Spark plug: The spark plug supplies the spark that ignites the air/fuel mixture so that combustion can occur. The spark must happen at just the right moment for things to work properly.
Valves: The intake and exhaust valves open at the proper time to let in air and fuel and to let out exhaust. Note that both valves are closed during compression and combustion so that the combustion chamber is sealed.
Piston: A piston is a cylindrical piece of metal that moves up and down inside the cylinder.
Piston rings: Piston rings provide a sliding seal between the outer edge of the piston and the inner edge of the cylinder. The rings serve two purposes:
* They prevent the fuel/air mixture and exhaust in the combustion chamber from leaking into the sump during compression and combustion.
* They keep oil in the sump from leaking into the combustion area, where it would be burned and lost.
Most cars that “burn oil” and have to have a quart added every 1,000 miles are burning it because the engine is old and the rings no longer seal things properly.
Connecting rod: The connecting rod connects the piston to the crankshaft. It can rotate at both ends so that its angle can change as the piston moves and the crankshaft rotates.
Crankshaft: The crankshaft turns the piston’s up and down motion into circular motion just like a crank on a jack-in-the-box does.
Sump: The sump surrounds the crankshaft. It contains some amount of oil, which collects in the bottom of the sump (the oil pan).
The ignition system produces a high-voltage electrical charge and transmits it to the spark plugs via ignition wires. The charge first flows to a distributor, which you can easily find under the hood of most cars. The distributor has one wire going in the center and four, six, or eight wires (depending on the number of cylinders) coming out of it. These ignition wires send the charge to each spark plug. The engine is timed so that only one cylinder receives a spark from the distributor at a time. This approach provides maximum smoothness.
Engine Cooling, Air-intake and Starting Systems
The cooling system in most cars consists of the radiator and water pump. Water circulates through passages around the cylinders and then travels through the radiator to cool it off. In a few cars (most notably Volkswagen Beetles), as well as most motorcycles and lawn mowers, the engine is air-cooled instead (You can tell an air-cooled engine by the fins adorning the outside of each cylinder to help dissipate heat.). Air-cooling makes the engine lighter but hotter, generally decreasing engine life and overall performance.
Most cars are normally aspirated, which means that air flows through an air filter and directly into the cylinders. High-performance engines are either turbocharged or supercharged, which means that air coming into the engine is first pressurized (so that more air/fuel mixture can be squeezed into each cylinder) to increase performance. The amount of pressurization is called boost. A turbocharger uses a small turbine attached to the exhaust pipe to spin a compressing turbine in the incoming air stream. A supercharger is attached directly to the engine to spin the compressor.
Increasing your engine’s performance is great, but what exactly happens when you turn the key to start it? The starting system consists of an electric starter motor and a starter solenoid. When you turn the ignition key, the starter motor spins the engine a few revolutions so that the combustion process can start. It takes a powerful motor to spin a cold engine. The starter motor must overcome:
* All of the internal friction caused by the piston rings
* The compression pressure of any cylinder(s) that happens to be in the compression stroke
* The energy needed to open and close valves with the camshaft
* All of the “other” things directly attached to the engine, like the water pump, oil pump, alternator, etc.
Because so much energy is needed and because a car uses a 12-volt electrical system, hundreds of amps of electricity must flow into the starter motor. The starter solenoid is essentially a large electronic switch that can handle that much current. When you turn the ignition key, it activates the solenoid to power the motor.
Producing More Engine Power
Increase displacement – More displacement means more power because you can burn more gas during each revolution of the engine. You can increase displacement by making the cylinders bigger or by adding more cylinders. Twelve cylinders seems to be the practical limit.
Increase the compression ratio – Higher compression ratios produce more power, up to a point. The more you compress the air/fuel mixture, however, the more likely it is to spontaneously burst into flame (before the spark plug ignites it). Higher-octane gasolines prevent this sort of early combustion. That is why high-performance cars generally need high-octane gasoline — their engines are using higher compression ratios to get more power.
Stuff more into each cylinder – If you can cram more air (and therefore fuel) into a cylinder of a given size, you can get more power from the cylinder (in the same way that you would by increasing the size of the cylinder). Turbochargers and superchargers pressurize the incoming air to effectively cram more air into a cylinder.
Cool the incoming air – Compressing air raises its temperature. However, you would like to have the coolest air possible in the cylinder because the hotter the air is, the less it will expand when combustion takes place. Therefore, many turbocharged and supercharged cars have an intercooler. An intercooler is a special radiator through which the compressed air passes to cool it off before it enters the cylinder
Let air come in more easily – As a piston moves down in the intake stroke, air resistance can rob power from the engine. Air resistance can be lessened dramatically by putting two intake valves in each cylinder. Some newer cars are also using polished intake manifolds to eliminate air resistance there. Bigger air filters can also improve air flow.
Let exhaust exit more easily – If air resistance makes it hard for exhaust to exit a cylinder, it robs the engine of power. Air resistance can be lessened by adding a second exhaust valve to each cylinder (a car with two intake and two exhaust valves has four valves per cylinder, which improves performance — when you hear a car ad tell you the car has four cylinders and 16 valves, what the ad is saying is that the engine has four valves per cylinder). If the exhaust pipe is too small or the muffler has a lot of air resistance, this can cause back-pressure, which has the same effect. High-performance exhaust systems use headers, big tail pipes and free-flowing mufflers to eliminate back-pressure in the exhaust system. When you hear that a car has “dual exhaust,” the goal is to improve the flow of exhaust by having two exhaust pipes instead of one.
Make everything lighter – Lightweight parts help the engine perform better. Each time a piston changes direction, it uses up energy to stop the travel in one direction and start it in another. The lighter the piston, the less energy it takes.
Inject the fuel – Fuel injection allows very precise metering of fuel to each cylinder. This improves performance and fuel economy.
How Turbochargers Work
Turbochargers are a type of forced induction system. They compress the air flowing into the engine. The advantage of compressing the air is that it lets the engine squeeze more air into a cylinder, and more air means that more fuel can be added. Therefore, you get more power from each explosion in each cylinder. A turbocharged engine produces more power overall than the same engine without the charging. This can significantly improve the power-to-weight ratio for the engine
. In order to achieve this boost, the turbocharger uses the exhaust flow from the engine to spin a turbine, which in turn spins an air pump. The turbine in the turbocharger spins at speeds of up to 150,000 rotations per minute (rpm) — that’s about 30 times faster than most car engines can go. And since it is hooked up to the exhaust, the temperatures in the turbine are also very high.
Turbochargers allow an engine to burn more fuel and air by packing more into the existing cylinders. The typical boost provided by a turbocharger is 6 to 8 pounds per square inch (psi). Since normal atmospheric pressure is 14.7 psi at sea level, you can see that you are getting about 50 percent more air into the engine. Therefore, you would expect to get 50 percent more power. It’s not perfectly efficient, so you might get a 30- to 40-percent improvement instead.
One cause of the inefficiency comes from the fact that the power to spin the turbine is not free. Having a turbine in the exhaust flow increases the restriction in the exhaust. This means that on the exhaust stroke, the engine has to push against a higher back-pressure. This subtracts a little bit of power from the cylinders that are firing at the same time.
The turbocharger is bolted to the exhaust manifold of the engine. The exhaust from the cylinders spins the turbine, which works like a gas turbine engine. The turbine is connected by a shaft to the compressor, which is located between the air filter and the intake manifold. The compressor pressurizes the air going into the pistons.
The exhaust from the cylinders passes through the turbine blades, causing the turbine to spin. The more exhaust that goes through the blades, the faster they spin.
On the other end of the shaft that the turbine is attached to, the compressor pumps air into the cylinders. The compressor is a type of centrifugal pump — it draws air in at the center of its blades and flings it outward as it spins.
In order to handle speeds of up to 150,000 rpm, the turbine shaft has to be supported very carefully. Most bearings would explode at speeds like this, so most turbochargers use a fluid bearing. This type of bearing supports the shaft on a thin layer of oil that is constantly pumped around the shaft. This serves two purposes: It cools the shaft and some of the other turbocharger parts, and it allows the shaft to spin without much friction.
One of the main problems with turbochargers is that they do not provide an immediate power boost when you step on the gas. It takes a second for the turbine to get up to speed before boost is produced. This results in a feeling of lag when you step on the gas, and then the car lunges ahead when the turbo gets moving.
One way to decrease turbo lag is to reduce the inertia of the rotating parts, mainly by reducing their weight. This allows the turbine and compressor to accelerate quickly, and start providing boost earlier. One sure way to reduce the inertia of the turbine and compressor is to make the turbocharger smaller. A small turbocharger will provide boost more quickly and at lower engine speeds, but may not be able to provide much boost at higher engine speeds when a really large volume of air is going into the engine. It is also in danger of spinning too quickly at higher engine speeds, when lots of exhaust is passing through the turbine.
A large turbocharger can provide lots of boost at high engine speeds, but may have bad turbo lag because of how long it takes to accelerate its heavier turbine and compressor. Luckily, there are some tricks used to overcome these challenges.
Most automotive turbochargers have a wastegate, which allows the use of a smaller turbocharger to reduce lag while preventing it from spinning too quickly at high engine speeds. The wastegate is a valve that allows the exhaust to bypass the turbine blades. The wastegate senses the boost pressure. If the pressure gets too high, it could be an indicator that the turbine is spinning too quickly, so the wastegate bypasses some of the exhaust around the turbine blades, allowing the blades to slow down.
Some turbochargers use ball bearings instead of fluid bearings to support the turbine shaft. But these are not your regular ball bearings — they are super-precise bearings made of advanced materials to handle the speeds and temperatures of the turbocharger. They allow the turbine shaft to spin with less friction than the fluid bearings used in most turbochargers. They also allow a slightly smaller, lighter shaft to be used. This helps the turbocharger accelerate more quickly, further reducing turbo lag.
Ceramic turbine blades are lighter than the steel blades used in most turbochargers. Again, this allows the turbine to spin up to speed faster, which reduces turbo lag.