In most engines a single cycle of operation (intake, compression, power, and exhaust) takes place over four strokes of a piston, made in two engine revolutions. When an engine has more than one cylinder the cycles are evenly staggered for smooth operation, but each cylinder will go through a full cycle in any two engine revolutions. When the piston is at the top of the cylinder at the beginning of the intake stroke, the intake valve opens and the descending piston draws in the air-fuel mixture.
At the bottom of the stroke the intake valve closes and the piston starts upward on the compression stroke, during which it squeezes the air-fuel mixture into a small space at the top of the cylinder. The ratio of the volume of the cylinder when the piston is at the bottom to the volume when the piston is at the top is called the compression ratio. The higher the compression ratio, the more powerful the engine and the higher its efficiency. However, in order to accommodate air pollution control devices, manufacturers have had to lower compression ratios.
Just before the piston reaches the top again, the spark plug fires, igniting the air-fuel mixture (alternatively, the heat of compression ignites the mixture). The mixture on burning becomes a hot, expanding gas forcing the piston down on its power stroke. Burning should be smooth and controlled. Faster, uncontrolled burning sometimes occurs when hot spots in the cylinder preignite the mixture; these explosions are called engine knock and cause loss of power. As the piston reaches the bottom, the exhaust valve opens, allowing the piston to force the combustion products—mainly carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and unburned hydrocarbons—out of the cylinder during the upward exhaust stroke.
The two-stroke engine is simpler mechanically than the four-stroke engine. The two-stroke engine delivers one power stroke every two strokes instead of one every four; thus it develops more power with the same displacement, or can be lighter and yet deliver the same power. For this reason it is used in lawn mowers, chain saws, small automobiles, motorcycles, and outboard marine engines.
However, there are several disadvantages that restrict its use. Since there are twice as many power strokes during the operation of a two-stroke engine as there are during the operation of a four-stroke engine, the engine tends to heat up more, and thus is likely to have a shorter life. Also, in the two-stroke engine lubricating oil must be mixed with the fuel. This causes a very high level of hydrocarbons in its exhaust, unless the fuel-air mixture is computer calculated to maximize combustion. A highly efficient, pollution-free two-stroke automobile engine is currently being developed by Orbital Engineering, under arrangements with all the U.S. auto makers.