An internal combustion engine (ICE) is a heat engine where the combustion of a fuel occurs with an oxidizer (usually air) in a combustion chamber that is an integral part of the working fluid flow circuit. In an internal combustion engine the expansion of the high-temperature and high-pressure gases produced by combustion applies direct force to some component of the engine. The force is applied typically to pistons, turbine blades, rotor or a nozzle. This force moves the component over a distance, transforming chemical energy into useful mechanical energy.
The term internal combustion engine usually refers to an engine in which combustion is intermittent, such as the more familiar four-stroke and two-stroke piston engine.
The defining characteristic of this kind of engine is that each piston completes a cycle every crankshaft revolution. The 4 processes of intake, compression, power and exhaust take place in only 2 strokes so that it is not possible to dedicate a stroke exclusively for each of them. Starting at TDC the cycle consist of:
- Scavenging: Around 75° of crankshaft rotation before BDC the exhaust valve or port opens, and blowdown occurs. Shortly thereafter the intake valve or transfer port opens. The incoming charge displaces the remaining combustion gases to the exhaust system and a part of the charge may enter the exhaust system as well. The piston reaches BDC and reverses direction. After the piston has traveled a short distance upwards into the cylinder the exhaust valve or port closes; shortly the intake valve or transfer port closes as well.
- Compression: With both intake and exhaust closed the piston continues moving upwards compressing the charge and performing a work on it. As in the case of a 4-stroke engine, ignition starts just before the piston reaches TDC and the same consideration on the thermodynamics of the compression on the charge.
- Power: While the piston is descending the combustion gases perform work on it—as in a 4-stroke engine. The same thermodynamic considerations about the expansion apply.
4 Stroke Engine
The top dead center (TDC) of a piston is the position where it is nearest to the valves; bottom dead center (BDC) is the opposite position where it is furthest from them. A stroke is the movement of a piston from TDC to BDC or vice versa together with the associated process. While an engine is in operation the crankshaft rotates continuously at a nearly constant speed. In a 4-stroke ICE each piston experiences 2 strokes per crankshaft revolution in the following order. Starting the description at TDC, these are:
- Intake, induction or suction: The intake valves are open as a result of the cam lobe pressing down on the valve stem. The piston moves downward increasing the volume of the combustion chamber and allowing air to enter in the case of a CI engine or an air fuel mix in the case of SI engine that do not use direct injection. The air or air-fuel mixture is called the charge in any case.
- Compression: In this stroke, both valves are closed and the piston moves upward reducing the combustion chamber volume which reaches its minimum when the piston is at TDC. The piston performs work on the charge as it is being compressed; as a result its pressure, temperature and density increase; an approximation to this behavior is provided by the ideal gas law. Just before the piston reaches TDC, ignition begins. In the case of a SI engine, the spark plug receives a high voltage pulse that generates the spark which gives it its name and ignites the charge. In the case of a CI engine the fuel injector quickly injects fuel into the combustion chamber as a spray; the fuel ignites due to the high temperature.
- Power or working stroke: The pressure of the combustion gases pushes the piston downward, generating more work than it required to compress the charge. Complementary to the compression stroke, the combustion gases expand and as a result their temperature, pressure and density decreases. When the piston is near to BDC the exhaust valve opens. The combustion gases expand irreversibly due to the leftover pressure—in excess of back pressure, the gauge pressure on the exhaust port—; this is called the blowdown.
- Exhaust: The exhaust valve remains open while the piston moves upward expelling the combustion gases. For naturally aspirated engine a small part of the combustion gases may remain in the cylinder during normal operation because the piston does not close the combustion chamber completely; these gases dissolve in the next charge. At the end of this stroke, the exhaust valve closes, the intake valve opens, and the sequence repeats in the next cycle. The intake valve may open before the exhaust valve closes to allow better scavenging.
While a 4-stroke engine uses the piston as a positive displacement pump to accomplish scavenging taking 2 of the 4 strokes, a 2-stroke engine uses the last part of the power stroke and the first part of the compression stroke for combined intake and exhaust. The work required to displace the charge and exhaust gases comes from either the crankcase or a separate blower. For scavenging, expulsion of burned gas and entry of fresh mix, two main approaches are described: Loop scavenging, and Uniflow scavenging, SAE news published in the 2010s that ‘Loop Scavenging’ is better under any circumstance than Uniflow Scavenging.