Car Engine: What It Is and How Does Car Engine Work?

Car engines come in all shapes and sizes. There is an endless variety of variations in horsepower, number of cylinders, fuel delivery and even the type of fuel used. But for all the different types of engines being used today, one thing is consistent across all of them. They all use internal combustion to create energy that makes the engine work. In this article, we will look at how a car engine works, the different types of car engines and how the technology has evolved over the years.

What is a car engine?

A brief history of the car engine

The Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) started as an experimental design created by a Dutch physicist around 1680. It was not until around 1859 that the first continuously operating ICE using spark-ignition was designed and tested successfully.

Although hailed as a significant achievement at the time, it took another 16 years to deliver a working four-stroke ICE. In 1885 Gottlieb Daimler (Mercedes Benz founder) designed and built the first modern ICE. It is a design that is still in use today. Most modern car engines are a direct descendant of this original design.

Types of car engines

The typical car engine is commonly referred to as a reciprocating engine where a piston moves up and down in a cylinder. This type of engine can have one or many cylinders, so this engine design is also known as a piston engine. The spark used to ignite the fuel also further defines the engine classification.

Spark ignition (SI) engines usually use gasoline for the fuel.

what is car engine?

Compression ignition (CI) engines usually use diesel for the fuel.

How does the car engine work?

The basic operation of the car engine is pretty darn simple. Whether  SI or CI the process that creates the power to drive the pistons involves multiple steps. These steps are;  intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust. Sounds simple enough on the surface but let’s drill down a bit more to see what is really going on:

How does car engine work
  1. Intake – in this step a mixture of air and fuel is injected into the cylinder chamber.
  2. Compression – in this step the piston compresses the fuel and air mixture so that it becomes highly flammable.
  3. Combustion – in this step a spark ignites the mixture to cause an explosion that pushes the piston down and creates a power stroke.
  4. Exhaust – in this step the burned gasses are eliminated from the chamber.

Power supply for car engine: Where engine power comes from?

Over the years the car engine has evolved into a very complex and highly efficient power supply for many different types of cars and trucks. The power output of early 6-cylinder and 8-cylinder engines can now be matched or exceeded by a 4-cylinder engine. This is due to newer materials and computer-controlled sensors.

Although today’s car engines continue to use the same basic combustion process, power and efficiency are mind-boggling.

Only a few years ago, a Hybrid car with a combination of an ICE and electric motors was unknown. Today it is commonplace and demonstrates an extremely high level of sophistication and ingenuity by car manufacturers. In a few years, most cars will be some form of Hybrid as this trend is becoming more and more mainstream. It also doesn’t hurt that the cost of Hybrids is getting cheaper, enticing more people to get on the bandwagon.

Typical car engine problems?

By definition, the internal combustion engine is a mechanical device, so it is prone to mechanical failure. The engine is the heart of the car and as such, is dependent on many other systems to keep it alive and well. Some examples of these other systems include the cooling system, electrical system, fuel delivery system and engine control unit (ECU) system. A problem with any one of these systems could potentially kill the heart of your car.

How do I know if my car engine has a problem?

Since your car’s heart is dependent on many other systems to keep it healthy, we have identified the 8 most common problems that will contribute to heart failure:

  1. Will not start – usually a dead or failing battery is the cause of this problem. If the battery dies then the whole electrical system is dead and you are not going anywhere.
  2. Overheating – if you have a leak in a cooling system hose or the cooling fan is not working, the engine will overheat. Before the engine reaches the meltdown the stage, the check engine light will come on to warn you.
  3. High fuel consumption – could be as simple as a loose fuel cap or as serious as a bad spark plug. Either way, try the cap first and if that’s not the problem, bring your car in for a check-up.
  4. Check engine light is illuminated – do not ignore this light. It is there to warn you that an ECU sensor has detected a problem in the fuel system. Has it checked out?
  5. Strange noises coming from under the hood – don’t just turn up the radio volume and hope it goes away. Unusual noise is an indication of a potentially serious problem so check it out.
  6. Oil patches under the car – means there is a leak somewhere in the engine. Bring it to the shop so that they can find and stop the bleeding.
  7. Strong odors of fuel or exhaust (rotten egg smell) – means that there could be a bad o2 sensor. The check engine light will illuminate as well. Bring it in for a check-up.
  8. Car performance has gone downhill – many engine problems could cause this. The best course of action is to take the car in to be checked over by an experienced technician.

Recommendations to keep car engines in good condition.

Regular maintenance is the key to ensuring that your car’s engine stays healthy. Whether you can bring the car in for scheduled maintenance or do it yourself, here are the areas to focus on:

  1. Check the oil. That liquid is the lifeblood of your engine so make sure it does not drop into the danger zone. The best way to avoid problems is to change it regularly.
  2. Do not let the engine overheat. Heat is the downfall of a normally healthy engine. If the temperature rises you need to stop, drop and call to get it repaired.
  3. Regular tune-ups. Car engines are designed to be driven thousands of miles between tune-ups. It is unusual but a spark plug can fail so don’t push the limit especially if you notice a problem.
  4. Replace the timing belt. Some cars use a timing chain which is virtually indestructible. But if your car uses a rubber-based belt it will have to be replaced about every 60,000 miles.
  5. Change the air filter. Just like you, your car engine needs to breathe. It takes in oxygen through the air filter so changing it regularly will keep your engine healthy.
  6. Replace drive belts. Some cars have a serpentine belt that runs off the engine to provide power to the alternator and A/C compressor. Some cars use individual belts. Whether one large serpentine or individual belts, make sure you check them for wear (cracking/brittle) regularly.
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