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Internal Cumbustion Engine - Old Technology New Life…

by Sachin Balagopalan on August 23, 2008 · 1 comment

Soaring oil and gas prices along with an increasing number of motor vehicles - producing higher levels of CO2 emissions - has no doubt sparked a huge debate on the future of internal combustion engines. The petrol engine used to power almost all land vehicles is facing some stiff competition these days. “Green” initiatives are proliferating all facets of our lives including the quest to find alternative clean energy be it solar, wind, hydrogen, bio-fuels or natural gas.

However amidst all the excitement to determine the next mainstream source of energy to power our cars and boats we seem to forget that the internal combustion engine has been around for a long time - a hundred years to be precise. That is a huge investment in one technology and it’s not going to go away anytime soon as this article in The Economist suggests.

Old technologies have a habit of fighting back when new ones come along. This is not surprising because they often have an enormous amount of design, engineering and production knowledge invested in them—especially so in the case of car engines. So new hybrid systems, fuel cells and electric motors will be chasing a moving target. The internal combustion engine will be getting better too.

In fact internal combustion engines have been getting better over time. The late eighties saw the complete replacement of the carburetor with fuel injection systems thus increasing fuel efficiency in addition to other operational benefits like a smoother ride.

Car engines (racing cars aside) have long been a compromise between efficiency, power and durability. Greater flexibility has come with fuel injectors, which can metre fuel more precisely than carburettors, and variable-valve control, which can optimise the opening and closing of inlet and exhaust valves to produce more power when accelerating or greater economy when dawdling around town. The same systems are also used in some big and thirsty V8 and V6 engines to shut down a few cylinders when driving slowly.

As we grapple with the issue of finding “greener” alternatives it might actually be viable to take the existing technology and “clean it up”.

Now engineers are taking these developments much further. The e-Valve system developed by Valeo, a French automotive supplier, uses electromagnetic controls to open and shut valves instead of pushrods operated by a camshaft. As each valve can be operated independent of any other, all sorts of tricks become possible, including shutting down cylinders and switching temporarily from the traditional four-stroke Otto cycle (as developed by Nicolaus Otto, a German engineer in 1876) to a type of Atkinson cycle (an ultra-lean system invented as a rival in 1882 by James Atkinson, a British engineer, but which suffered from a lack of power). The Toyota Prius already uses a form of Atkinson cycle for the petrol engine that operates alongside an electric motor in its hybrid system.

Valeo reckons that on average their e-Valve system can cut fuel consumption and CO2 emissions in a car by up to 20%. It could also be used to make three- and two-cylinder engines that run efficiently and smoothly. These tiny engines could power small cars directly, combine with electric motors in hybrids or work as “get-you-home” engines or range-extending generators in plug-in electric cars.

Whether we will be able to totally divorce ourselves from petrol engines remains to be seen. In the meantime it looks like the internal combustion engine is going to be around for awhile. High gasoline prices at the pump are forcing people to think small. Smaller cars are making a comeback of sorts in the U.S and I think this trend will continue forcing the car companies and engineers to truly focus on optimizing fuel consumption without worrying about horse power. Up until now compromising HP for less fuel consumption was not an option because gasoline was affordable. As people feel the pain at the pump 0-60 in 3.8 seconds seems not too important anymore!


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Abuloc 09.03.08 at 9:30 pm

Im a petrol addict

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