Automobile Propulsion Systems

Reciprocating Internal-Combustion Engines

The modern automobile is usually driven by a water-cooled, piston-type internal-combustion engine, mounted in the front of the vehicle; its power may be transmitted either to the front wheels, to the rear wheels, or to all four wheels. Some automobiles use air-cooled engines, but these are generally less efficient than the liquid-cooled type. In some models the engine is carried just forward of the rear wheels; this arrangement, while wasteful of space, has the advantage of better weight distribution. Although passenger vehicles are usually gasoline fueled, diesel engines (which burn a heavier petroleum oil) are employed both for heavy vehicles, such as trucks and buses, and for a small number of family sedans. Both diesel and gasoline engines generally employ a four-stroke cycle.

The Wankel Engine

For some years, it was hoped that the Wankel engine, a rotary internal-combustion engine developed by Felix Wankel of Germany in 1954, might provide an alternative to the reciprocating internal-combustion engine because of its low exhaust emissions and feasibility for mass production. In this engine a three-sided rotor revolves within an epithrochoidal drum (combustion chamber) in which the free space contracts or expands as the rotor turns. Fuel is inhaled, compressed, and fired by the ignition system. The expanding gas turns the rotor and the spent gas is expelled. The Wankel engine has no valves, pistons, connecting rods, reciprocating parts, or crankshaft. It develops a high horsepower per cubic inch and per pound of engine weight, and it is essentially vibrationless, but its fuel consumption is higher than that of the conventional piston engine.

Alternative Fuels and Engines

Internal-combustion engines consume relatively high amounts of petroleum, and contribute heavily to air pollution; therefore, other types of fuels and nonconventional engines are being studied and developed. An alternative-fuel vehicle (AFV) is a dedicated flexible-fuel vehicle (one with a common fuel tank designed to run on varying blends of unleaded gasoline with either ethanol or methanol) or a dual-fuel vehicle (one designed to run on a combination of an alternative fuel and a conventional fuel) operating on at least one alternative fuel. An advanced-technology vehicle (ATV) combines a new engine, power train, and drive train system to significantly improve fuel economy. It is estimated that more than a half million alternative-fuel vehicles were in use in the United States in 2002; 50% of these operate on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG, or propane) and almost 25% use compressed natural gas (CNG).

The ideal alternative-fuel engine would burn fuel much more cleanly than conventional gasoline-powered internal-combustion engines and yet still be able to use the existing fuel infrastructure (i.e., gas stations). Compressed natural gas, propane, hydrogen, and alcohol-based substances (gasohol, ethanol, methanol, and other "neat" alcohols) all have their proponents. However, although these fuels burn somewhat cleaner than gasoline, the use of all of them involves trade-offs. For example, because they take up more space per mile driven, these alternatives require larger fuel capacities or shorter distances between refueling stops. In addition, conventional automobiles may require extensive modifications to use alternative fuels; for example, to use gasohol containing more than 17% ethanol, the spark plugs, engine timing, and seals of an automobile must be modified; since 1998, however, many U.S. automobiles have been manufactured with equipment that enables them to run on E85, a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. Fuels derived from plant materials, such as ethanol, are a popular concept because they do not deplete the world's oil reserves; in various locations, "biodiesel" test cars have run on fuel similar to sunflower-seed oil. Similarly, dual-fuel (gasoline-diesel and gasoline-propane) and water-fuel-emulsion cars are being tested.

Alternative propulsion systems are also being studied. Steam engines, which were once more common than gasoline engines, are being experimented with now because they give off fewer noxious emissions; they are, however, less efficient than internal-combustion engines. Battery-powered electric engines, used in some early automobilies and later mainly for local delivery vehicles, are now used in automobiles capable of highway speeds, but they are restricted to shorter trips because of limitations on the storage batteries that power the motors and the time required to recharge the batteries. A true mass-market all-electric automobile was first sold to consumers in late 2010.

Some engineers worry that widespread adoption of electric cars might actually generate more air pollution, because additional electric power plants would be needed to recharge their batteries. Therefore, design and research work has also intensified on solar batteries, but they are generally not yet powerful enough to power such vehicles. The most promising technology for electric engines is the fuel cell, but fuel cells currently are too expensive for practical applications.

Hybrid vehicles, or hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), are powered by two or more energy sources, one of which is electricity, to produce a high-miles-per-gallon, low-emission drive. There are two types of HEVs, series and parallel. In a series hybrid, all of the vehicle power is provided from one source. For example, an electric motor drives the vehicle from the battery pack and the internal combustion engine powers a generator that charges the battery. In a parallel hybrid, power is delivered through both paths, both the electric motor and the internal combustion engine powering the vehicle. Thus, the electric motor may help power the vehicle while idling and during acceleration. The internal combustion engine takes over while cruising, powering the drive train and recharging the electric motor's battery. Some hybrids can operate in electric-only mode. Automobiles with gasoline-electric hybrid engines first appeared on the consumer market in 1999; unhampered by the AFV's limitations, sales of these vehicles increased steadily at the beginning of the 21st cent.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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