Engineers find new ways to improve efficiency of gas engines: Engineering Explained

How a Reactivity Controlled Compression Ignition engine works

How a Reactivity Controlled Compression Ignition engine works

As fast as electric cars are improving and expanding, there are some things that gas engines do better—many experts agree that gasoline engines will be around for several decades.

Developing electric cars and refining gas engines aren't mutually exclusive. Vehicle electrification will continue to expand rapidly, and internal combustion engines may continue well into the future, in some diminished role.

Assuming that's the case, it's a good thing that engineers are finding ways to improve the efficiency of internal combustion.

For years, gas engines were stuck at around 30 percent thermal efficiency—a measure of how much work they could do on a gallon of fuel—about a third as efficient as an electric motor (setting aside losses from power plants and transmission lines.)

Some of the best production engines in cars today have reached 40 percent thermal efficiency.

It's time to make the next jump, as this video from Engineering Explained talks about.

CHECK OUT: Here's how Mazda's HCCI engine works

The next major jump looks to come from what engineers call HCCI: homogeneous charge compression ignition. HCCI engines work on a similar principle to diesels, using the heat from compressing air in the cylinder to ignite the fuel. The trick has been to control the heat in the cylinder and thus the timing of the ignition, since pure HCCI engines don't have fuel injectors in the combustion chambers as diesels do. For example, how do you start an engine without a spark plug?

HCCI engines are promising because, like diesels, they run on a leaner mixture of air-to-fuel, using less gas, and they use very high compression ratios, which also improve efficiency.

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Mazda has announced that it will introduce a version of an HCCI that it calls Skyactiv-X will go into production in 2019. Skyactiv-X uses a spark plug and Mazda's patented processes to control ignition timing while reaping the benefits of HCCI's high compression and lean burn.

Several journalists, including our colleagues at Motor Authority have driven prototypes of the engine, and have come away impressed.

Mazda claims a 30-percent improvement in efficiency compared with its current production line of Skyactiv-G gasoline engines.

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