Q and A
Here is a set of questions from readers:
  • What is the difference between a gasoline engine and a diesel engine? In a diesel engine, there is no spark plug. Instead, diesel fuel is injected into the cylinder, and the heat and pressure of the compression stroke cause the fuel to ignite. Diesel fuel has a higher energy density than gasoline, so a diesel engine gets better mileage. See How Diesel Engines Work for more information.

  • What is the difference between a two-stroke and a four-stroke engine? Most chain saws and boat motors use two-stroke engines. A two-stroke engine has no moving valves, and the spark plug fires each time the piston hits the top of its cycle. A hole in the lower part of the cylinder wall lets in gas and air. As the piston moves up it is compressed, the spark plug ignites combustion, and exhaust exits through another hole in the cylinder. You have to mix oil into the gas in a two-stroke engine because the holes in the cylinder wall prevent the use of rings to seal the combustion chamber. Generally, a two-stroke engine produces a lot of power for its size because there are twice as many combustion cycles occurring per rotation. However, a two-stroke engine uses more gasoline and burns lots of oil, so it is far more polluting. See How Two-stroke Engines Work for more information.

  • You mentioned steam engines in this article -- are there any advantages to steam engines and other external combustion engines? The main advantage of a steam engine is that you can use anything that burns as the fuel. For example, a steam engine can use coal, newspaper or wood for the fuel, while an internal combustion engine needs pure, high-quality liquid or gaseous fuel. See How Steam Engines Work for more information.

  • Are there any other cycles besides the Otto cycle used in car engines? The two-stroke engine cycle is different, as is the diesel cycle described above. The engine in the Mazda Millennia uses a modification of the Otto cycle called the Miller cycle. Gas turbine engines use the Brayton cycle. Wankle rotary engines use the Otto cycle, but they do it in a very different way than four-stroke piston engines.

  • Why have eight cylinders in an engine? Why not have one big cylinder of the same displacement of the eight cylinders instead? There are a couple of reasons why a big 4.0-liter engine has eight half-liter cylinders rather than one big 4-liter cylinder. The main reason is smoothness. A V-8 engine is much smoother because it has eight evenly spaced explosions instead of one big explosion. Another reason is starting torque. When you start a V-8 engine, you are only driving two cylinders (1 liter) through their compression strokes, but with one big cylinder you would have to compress 4 liters instead.
Other questions:
  • Why do big diesel engines and race car engines have such different horsepower ratings?
  • How does a carburetor in a gasoline engine work?
  • How does a magneto work?
  • What is the difference between an "inline" and a "V" engine?
  • What is a dry sump oil system in a race car?
  • What gives Harley-Davidson Motorcycles their unique sound?
  • How does nitrous oxide help an engine perform better?
  • How does the oxygen sensor in a car work?
  • What does the VTEC system in a Honda engine do?
  • Do race cars use gasoline like normal cars do, or do they use something else?
  • How does a miller-cycle engine work?
  • How do exhaust headers work to improve engine performance?
  • What does the "weight" of motor oil (e.g., 10W-40) mean?
  • How does a "Jake Brake" work on a big rig?
  • Could you create a pollution-free car that runs off of compressed air?
  • What is the difference between a supercharger and a turbocharger?
  • What does the computer in a car do? Will cars start on January 1, 2000?
  • What is the difference between gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, etc.?
  • What does the octane rating of gasoline mean? Why is it called octane?
  • Why is it so hard to start a car in the winter?
  • What is a catalytic converter and how does it work?

For even more information on cars, engines and related topics, check out the links on the next page!