How It Works

In this article, we'll discuss the basic idea behind an engine and then go into detail about how all the pieces fit together, what can go wrong and how to increase performance.

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. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
  • There is such a thing as an external combustion engine. A steam engine in old-fashioned trains and steam boats 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.

Internal Combustion

The principle behind any reciprocating internal combustion engine: If you put a tiny amount of high-energy fuel (like gasoline) in a small, enclosed 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!

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Figure 1

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:

  1. Intake stroke
  2. Compression stroke
  3. Combustion stroke
  4. Exhaust stroke

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 crankshaft 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:

  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. (Part 1 of the figure)
  2. Then the piston moves back up to compress this fuel/air mixture. Compression makes the explosion more powerful. (Part 2 of the figure)
  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. (Part 3 of the figure)
  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. (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 crankshaft. 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, starting with the cylinders.

Basic Engine Parts

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.

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Figure 2. Inline - The cylinders are arranged in a line in a single bank.

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Figure 3. V - The cylinders are arranged in two banks set at an angle to one another.

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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.

Let's look at some key engine parts in more detail.

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).

Engine Valve Train and Ignition Systems

Most engine subsystems can be implemented using different technologies, and better technologies can improve the performance of the engine. Let's look at all of the different subsystems used in modern engines, beginning with the valve train.

The valve train consists of the valves and a mechanism that opens and closes them. The opening and closing system is called a camshaft. The camshaft has lobes on it that move the valves up and down, as shown in Figure 5.

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Figure 5. The camshaft

Most modern engines have what are called overhead cams. This means that the camshaft is located above the valves, as you see in Figure 5. The cams on the shaft activate the valves directly or through a very short linkage. Older engines used a camshaft located in the sump near the crankshaft. Rods linked the cam below to valve lifters above the valves. This approach has more moving parts and also causes more lag between the cam's activation of the valve and the valve's subsequent motion. A timing belt or timing chain links the crankshaft to the camshaft so that the valves are in sync with the pistons. The camshaft is geared to turn at one-half the rate of the crankshaft. Many high-performance engines have four valves per cylinder (two for intake, two for exhaust), and this arrangement requires two camshafts per bank of cylinders, hence the phrase "double overhead cam."

The ignition system (Figure 6) 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. See How Automobile Ignition Systems Work for more details.

Figure 6. The ignition system

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.

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Diagram of a cooling system showing how all the plumbing is connected

So now you know how and why your engine stays cool. But why is air circulation so important? 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.

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Garrett turbocharger

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.

Engine Lubrication, Fuel, Exhaust and Electrical Systems

When it comes to day-to-day car maintenance, your first concern is probably the amount of gas in your car. How does the gas that you put in power the cylinders? The engine's fuel system pumps gas from the gas tank and mixes it with air so that the proper air/fuel mixture can flow into the cylinders. Fuel is delivered in three common ways: carburetion, port fuel injection and direct fuel injection.

  • In carburetion, a device called a carburetor mixes gas into air as the air flows into the engine.
  • In a fuel-injected engine, the right amount of fuel is injected individually into each cylinder either right above the intake valve (port fuel injection) or directly into the cylinder (direct fuel injection).

Oil also plays an important part. The lubrication system makes sure that every moving part in the engine gets oil so that it can move easily. The two main parts needing oil are the pistons (so they can slide easily in their cylinders) and any bearings that allow things like the crankshaft and camshafts to rotate freely. In most cars, oil is sucked out of the oil pan by the oil pump, run through the oil filter to remove any grit, and then squirted under high pressure onto bearings and the cylinder walls. The oil then trickles down into the sump, where it is collected again and the cycle repeats.

Oil also plays an important part. The lubrication system makes sure that every moving part in the engine gets oil so that it can move easily. The two main parts needing oil are the pistons (so they can slide easily in their cylinders) and any bearings that allow things like the crankshaft and camshafts to rotate freely. In most cars, oil is sucked out of the oil pan by the oil pump, run through the oil filter to remove any grit, and then squirted under high pressure onto bearings and the cylinder walls. The oil then trickles down into the sump, where it is collected again and the cycle repeats.