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Posts Tagged ‘inefficiency’

The Two-Cylinder Club

Today, I’d like to discuss a technology used in some vehicles called cylinder deactivation, or variable displacement. It’s a system used in some reciprocating engines that selectively deactivates some of the cylinders to improve efficiency and save fuel. This is generally accomplished by incorporating actuators that hold the intake and exhaust valves open so as to create an “air spring”, which has an equalizing effect on the overall combustion cycle of the engine. A relatively old technology, the closest predecessor to use a design like this was the hit and miss engine, which accomplished the task by holding the exhaust valve open. Several automotive makers have experimented with variable displacement models, having little success. Today, the concept is regaining strength with rising fuel prices and increasing environmental awareness. Some newer engines that were previously deemed “guzzlers” are now being redesigned with selective cylinder deactivation technology as a less costly alternative to a hybrid power-train. One example of this is the newer Chrysler Hemi engine, though I understand from talking to the owners of these that the Fuel Saver mode only kicks in above 65 MPH.

In yesterday’s post I talked about hybrid vehicles. It was my understanding that the engines in hybrid vehicles were directly coupled to the electric motor and deactivated cylinders to “shut the engine off” while still running on the electric motor. I was under the impression that the engine still rotated with the transmission without firing when not in use. I guess I can’t give the auto makers quite as much credit now, as I realize that the engines in hybrids behave much like they do in non-hybrid vehicles with automatic transmissions, stopping the engine completely and restarting with a smaller motor when needed.

I don’t really understand why all vehicles don’t have variable displacement technology. I mean heck, a car or truck only needs one cylinder to idle, not eight. The goal is to use the full potential of each cylinder. At idle or partial throttle there is a vacuum inside the cylinders; in other words, an engine only uses as much air as it needs to. This becomes a problem with larger, multiple cylinder engines because you get pumping loss, inefficiency resulting in low pressure at top-dead-center of the compression stroke. Of course, lower pressure equals lower efficiency. So if at idle we take away 7 of the 8 cylinders in operation, that one cylinder left over has to use much more of it’s maximum power output to maintain operation of the engine. I would gladly take away three of the six cylinders in my car if it meant better mileage, not like I need all six anyway. Diesels could accomplish this even easier, simply by shutting off the fuel to the cylinders that you want to cut, now we’re talking mileage.

I think that all automakers should start designing their vehicles with variable displacement technology. The changes are easy to implement, and the rewards would be great to the consumers. If they just invest a little more time in getting the system right, it could be huge for a form of propulsion that is on it’s way out anyway.