How the Combustion Engine Works


A combustion engine works by generating mechanical energy by combustion of or burning fuel. This happens by creating hundreds of small explosions while the engine is running. A piston glides along with a cylinder, pulling down air and gas and filling the cylinder with fuel for the fire. The air-gas mixture is now ready for compression. The piston glides back up the cylinder and pushes the air-gas mixture into a tiny space, compressing the mixture – creating vast amounts of potential energy. Once the piston is at the top, a spark flashes and the energized compressed gases are set on fire, and this explosion of energy propels the combustion engine.

Alternative ICEsThis explosion pushes the piston back down, and the crankshaft spins in unison. The energy created moves the crankshaft and creates the power required for the engine. The piston finally glides back up the cylinder to remove the exhaust, and the process begins again. This process is repeated hundreds of times per second so that the combustion engine has enough fuel and energy to run the vehicle. Though there are various engines available today, most engines work on a basic principle or concept – compress air and gas into a tiny space, light this mixture, and transfer the energy created into mechanical motion. This simple principle is behind every combustion engine, from the engines from the 1870s to the fancier engines used today.


The piston has four strokes for this process. The first stroke is the intake stroke – as the piston glides down the cylinder, the intake valve opens, allowing the chamber to fill with air and fuel. The amount of air and fuel in this chamber controls how much energy is going to be released. It is possible to add more fuel, creating more potential energy – but each engine has a certain capacity for the air-fuel mixture. The next stroke is the compression stroke – which forces the air and gas into a tiny space – the higher the compression ratio, the more potential energy there is to be gained.

The power stroke, or the combustion stroke, ensures that the mixture is ignited with as much energy as possible. The power stroke thrusts the piston downward, which is propelled by the explosion. Finally, the exhaust stroke opens the exhaust valve, and the piston pushes the burnt gases up and out of the chamber via the exhaust valves. The pressure the piston encounters are minimal, and the exhaust valve helps clean out the burnt gases, clearing the way for a new intake of air and fuel.

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