The most common internal-combustion engine is the piston-type gasoline engine used in most automobiles. The confined space in which combustion occurs is called a cylinder. The cylinders are now usually arranged in one of four ways: a single row with the centerlines of the cylinders vertical (in-line engine); a double row with the centerlines of opposite cylinders converging in a V (V-engine); a double zigzag row somewhat similar to that of the V-engine but with alternate pairs of opposite cylinders converging in two Vs (W-engine); or two horizontal, opposed rows (opposed, pancake, flat, or boxer engine). In each cylinder a piston slides up and down. One end of a connecting rod is attached to the bottom of the piston by a joint; the other end of the rod clamps around a bearing on one of the throws, or convolutions, of a crankshaft; the reciprocating (up-and-down) motions of the piston rotate the crankshaft, which is connected by suitable gearing to the drive wheels of the automobile. The number of crankshaft revolutions per minute is called the engine speed. The top of the cylinder is closed by a metal cover (called the head) bolted onto it. Into a threaded aperture in the head is screwed the spark plug, which provides ignition.
Two other openings in the cylinder are called ports. The intake port admits the air-gasoline mixture; the exhaust port lets out the products of combustion. A mushroom-shaped valve is held tightly over each port by a coil spring, and a camshaft rotating at one-half engine speed opens the valves in correct sequence. A pipe runs from each intake port to a carburetor or injector, the pipes from all the cylinders joining to form a manifold; a similar manifold connects the exhaust ports with an exhaust pipe and noise muffler. A carburetor or fuel injector mixes air with gasoline in proportions of weight varying from 11 to 1 at the richest to a little over 16 to 1 at the leanest. The composition of the mixture is regulated by the throttle, an air valve in the intake manifold that varies the flow of fuel to the combustion chambers of the cylinders. The mixture is rich at idling speed (closed throttle) and at high speeds (wide-open throttle), and is lean at medium and slow speeds (partly open throttle).
The other main type of reciprocating engine is the diesel engine, invented by Rudolf Diesel and patented in 1892. The diesel uses the heat produced by compression rather than the spark from a plug to ignite an injected mixture of air and diesel fuel (a heavier petroleum oil) instead of gasoline. Diesel engines are heavier than gasoline engines because of the extra strength required to contain the higher temperatures and compression ratios. Diesel engines are most widely used where large amounts of power are required: heavy trucks, locomotives, and ships.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.