Have you ever opened the hood of your car and wondered what was going on in there? A car engine can look like a big confusing jumble of metal, tubes and wires to the uninitiated.
- Relatively efficient (compared to an external combustion engine)
- Relatively inexpensive (compared to a gas turbine)
- Relatively easy to refuel (compared to an electric car)
These advantages beat any other existing technology for moving a car around.
Combustion Is Key
To understand the basic idea behind how a reciprocating internal combustion engine works, it is helpful to have a good mental image of how "internal combustion" works. One good example is an old Revolutionary War cannon. You have probably seen these in movies, where the soldiers load the cannon with gun powder and a cannon ball and light it. That is internal combustion, but it is hard to imagine that having anything to do with engines.
A more relevant example might be this: Say that you took a big piece of plastic sewer pipe, maybe 3 inches in diameter and 3 feet long, and you put a cap on one end of it. Then say that you sprayed a little WD-40 into the pipe, or put in a tiny drop of gasoline. Then say that you stuffed a potato down the pipe. Like this:
I am not recommending that you do this! But say you did... What we have here is a device commonly known as a potato cannon. When you introduce a spark, you can ignite the fuel.
What is interesting, and the reason we are talking about such a device, is that a potato cannon can launch a potato about 500 feet through the air! There is a huge amount of energy in a tiny drop of gasoline.
The potato cannon uses the basic principle behind any reciprocating internal combustion engine: If you put a tiny amount of high-energy fuel (like gasoline) in a small, encloed space and ignite it, an incredible amount of energy is released in the form of expanding gas. You can use that energy to propel a potato 500 feet. In this case, the energy is translated into potato motion. You can also use it for more interesting purposes. For example, if you can create a cycle that allows you to set off explosions like this hundreds of times per minute, and if you can harness that energy in a useful way, what you have is the core of a car engine!
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 Nikolaus Otto, who invented it in 1867. The four strokes are illustrated in Figure 1. They are:
- Intake stroke
- Compression stroke
- Combustion stroke
- Exhaust stroke
Understanding the Cycles
You can see in the figure that a device called a piston replaces the potato in the potato cannon. The piston is connected to the crank shaft by a connecting rod. As the crankshaft revolves, it has the effect of "resetting the cannon." Here's what happens as the engine goes through its cycle:
- 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. (Part 1 of the figure)
- Then the piston moves back up to compress this fuel/air mixture. Compression makes the explosion more powerful. (Part 2 of the figure)
- 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. (Part 3 of the figure)
- Once the piston hits the bottom of its stroke, the exhaust valve opens and the exhaust leaves the cylinder to go out the tail pipe. (Part 4 of the figure)
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 (straight line). In an engine the linear motion of the pistons is converted into rotational motion by the crank shaft. The rotational motion is nice because we plan to turn (rotate) the car's wheels with it anyway.
Now let's look at all the parts that work together to make this happen.
The core of the engine is the cylinder, with the piston moving up and down inside the cylinder. The engine described above has 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 (also known as horizontally opposed or boxer), as shown in the following figures.
Figure 2. Inline - The cylinders are arranged in a line in a single bank.
Figure 3. V - The cylinders are arranged in two banks set at an angle to one another.
Figure 4. Flat - The cylinders are arranged in two banks on opposite sides of the engine.
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.
The combustion chamber is the area where compression and combustion take place. As the piston moves up and down, you can see that the size of the combustion chamber changes. It has some maximum volume as well as a minimum volume. The difference between the maximum and minimum is called the displacement and is measured in liters or CCs (Cubic Centimeters, where 1,000 cubic centimeters equals a liter).
Here are some examples:
- A chainsaw might have a 40 cc engine.
- A motorcycle might have a 500 cc or a 750 cc engine.
- A sports car might have a 5.0 liter (5,000 cc) engine.
Most normal car engines fall somewhere between 1.5 liter (1,500 cc) and 4.0 liters (4,000 cc)
If you have a 4-cylinder engine and each cylinder displaces half a liter, then the entire engine is a "2.0 liter engine." If each cylinder displaces half a liter and there are six cylinders arranged in a V configuration, you have a "3.0 liter V-6."
Generally, the displacement tells you something about how much power an engine can produce. A cylinder that displaces half a liter can hold twice as much fuel/air mixture as a cylinder that displaces a quarter of a liter, and therefore you would expect about twice as much power from the larger cylinder (if everything else is equal). So a 2.0 liter engine is roughly half as powerful as a 4.0 liter engine.
You can get more displacement in an engine either by increasing the number of cylinders or by making the combustion chambers of all the cylinders bigger (or both).
Other Parts of an Engine
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.
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.
A piston is a cylindrical piece of metal that moves up and down inside the cylinder.
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.
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.
The crank shaft turns the piston's up and down motion into circular motion just like a crank on a jack-in-the-box does.
The sump surrounds the crankshaft. It contains some amount of oil, which collects in the bottom of the sump (the oil pan).