octane number, figure of merit representing the resistance of gasoline to premature detonation when exposed to heat and pressure in the combustion chamber of an internal-combustion engine. Such detonation is wasteful of the energy in the fuel and potentially damaging to the engine; premature detonation is indicated by knocking or pinging noises that occur as the engine operates. If an engine running on a particular gasoline makes such noises, they can be lessened or eliminated by using a gasoline with a higher octane number. The octane number of a sample of fuel is determined by burning the gasoline in an engine under controlled conditions, e.g., of spark timing, compression, engine speed, and load, until a standard level of knock occurs. The engine is next operated on a fuel blended from a form of isooctane that is very resistant to knocking and a form of heptane that knocks very easily. When a blend is found that duplicates the knocking intensity of the sample under test, the percentage of isooctane by volume in the blended sample is taken as the octane number of the fuel. Octane numbers higher than 100 are found by measuring the amount of tetraethyl lead that must be added to pure isooctane to duplicate the knocking of a sample fuel. At present three systems of octane rating are used in the United States. Two of these, the research octane and motor octane numbers, are determined by burning the gasoline in an engine under different, but specified, conditions. Usually the motor octane number is lower than the research octane. The third octane rating, which federal regulations require on commercial gasoline pumps, is an average of research octane and motor octane. Under this system a regular grade gasoline has an octane number of about 87 and a premium grade of about 93. Most American-made cars that were built in the 1971 model year or later can use regular gasoline. To prevent knocking, premium grade gasoline must be used in many cars built before 1971 and in some new cars that have high-performance engines.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.