The modern automotive market has an increasing selection of different power sources available. No longer do we depend on the tried and tested gasoline engines – at least, not solely.
Different power sources are used in cars for a variety of reasons, but the main one that is currently enveloping the whole industry worldwide is the protection of the environment. This has been the motivating factor for the increasing rate of production of power sources such as hybrid systems (usually combining a battery and an internal combustion gasoline engine), battery systems, hydrogen fuel cell systems, additional solar power capabilities, and so on.
In this short article, we will quickly take you through a brief overview of the different ways you can power your car.
The 2-stroke or 4-stroke versions of this have been the basis of automotive engines for well over 100 years. They sometimes come with forced induction systems, such as a turbocharger or supercharger, to massively boost performance. This is done by forcing huge amounts of extra air into the engine to be burnt, and as we all know – air fuels fire.
These engines work by using the well-known operation of “suck, squeeze, bang, blow”. The air and fuel are drawn into the cylinder at a valve and then compressed by a piston that rises up in the cylinder (“suck” and then “squeeze”). A spark from a spark plug then ignites this compressed air/fuel mixture (“bang”), forcing the piston down quickly. This is referred to as the power stroke and is what gives the engine momentum to keep turning.
After this, the piston rises again, pushing all the burnt exhaust gases out of the exhaust valve, which opens at this time and then closes again immediately after. This process is one revolution. It then begins again, happening hundreds or thousands of times per minute, depending on how much you have the throttle open.
Gasoline is by far the most commonly available automotive fuel across the world (with diesel have grown in momentum in recent years) – this is probably the main reason for getting a car with one of these engines. The gasoline system is tried and tested and has been carefully refined over many years, making it trusted, reliable, and in many cases very simple to fix if something goes wrong.
- The standard gasoline engine used in a car is usually a 4-cylinder in-line format. This is the simplest design to engineer and easiest to maintain, hence it being so popular. An in-line is the most popular (also sometimes referred to as a “straight” engine, like “straight 6”). For the large majority of simple cars for day-to-day use, an in-line engine will provide all you need.
- There are also V-formats (very popular in the United States) – you will probably recognize the term “V8”, which means 8 cylinders arranged in a V format, with 4 cylinders on each side of the “V”.
- W-formats are when there are essentially 2 “V” engines stuck next to each other to make a “W”, to double the power output. “W” engines are only used in the monstrous supercars such as the Bugatti Veyron, so unless you have quite a lot of back-pocket cash, the car you purchase is unlikely to use one of these.
- Boxer layouts (also known as “flat”) – these are most popular with Subaru and Porsche. The cylinders are arranged in a flat formation, pointing towards the sides of the car. Most boxer engines have 4 cylinders and are therefore referred to as a “boxer 4” or a “flat 4”. Boxer engines are perhaps the best you can get for good levels of performance on a road car, but they are incredibly fiddly and difficult to maintain.
- Rotary engines. Rotary engines work in a slightly different way to most gasoline engines. They are sometimes called Wankel engines (and yes, it really is!). Instead of having a piston that moves up and down, these engines use a rotor that follows a sort of spirograph path to produce the traditional suck, squeeze, bang, blow operation. Rotary engines produce an awful lot of power with small engine sizes, but are particularly bad for the environment and can be incredibly problematic if your seals go. Mazda uses a rotary engine in its RX-7 and RX-8 models.
A diesel engine works in a very similar way to a gasoline engine. The “suck, squeeze, bang, blow” method of operating is still used, but it happens in a slightly different way. Diesel engines use direct injection – this means that the fuel itself is squirted directly into the cylinder and mixes with the air in there, instead of being mixed together before entering the cylinder. The same process applies: the inlet valve opens and the air is drawn into the cylinder, with diesel also being injected at the same time (“suck”).
The piston then compresses this mixture (“squeeze”). This is where the main difference to gasoline comes into play. Where in a gasoline engine a spark plug causes the explosion of the air/fuel mixture, in a diesel engine the mixture is compressed so much that it ignites itself. This is the “bang” phase, and then the “blow” phase happens in the same way as a gasoline engine, with the process beginning all over again.
Diesel engines use glow plugs to warm up the space inside the engine quickly on cold mornings when you first start the car. This just helps it to get going.
Diesel engines are almost always in an in-line format. Diesel fuel has really developed in recent years, with it now being more economic than gasoline in many areas of the world (of course this depends on the cost of the diesel itself). These engines produce a lot of low range torque, which is why they are often used in trucks, vans, and other industrial vehicles, as well as your standard road use.
Hybrid power sources usually utilize a gasoline engine and combine it with a battery system, or some other way of holding an electrical charge. These hybrids are generally seen as a bridge that is in the process of being constructed between mainstream gasoline usage and future mainstream electrical usage. The systems are usually designed to operate so that electrical power is used at low speeds and the gasoline engine kicks into effect when the car begins to travel quicker.
These are much better for the environment than their fossil fuel counterparts and will give you much better running costs around cities, but currently cost much more in the first place and actually sometimes have slightly less highway mileage.
There are 2 basic ways a hybrid car can be designed:
- Gasoline engine supported by an electrical charge-storing device such as a battery (this is the most common type of hybrid power system).
- Battery supported by an internal combustion engine (such as gasoline).
In recent years, battery power has had a huge amount of research and development thrown into it, most notably by Tesla – a company that has risen to be a mainstream manufacturer in a very short timespan.
Electrical power is stored in batteries by plugging the car in at sockets located around the country or simply from a plug located in your own home.
Although electric cars have incredible performance capabilities and are much cheaper to power, there are still many unknowns about them. For example, when the batteries become less adept at holding a charge (think of every smartphone you’ve ever owned), they will need to be replaced. The true cost of this won’t be clear until it has happened more regularly. There is also the potential problem of nationwide power grids coping with everybody plugging their cars in at once – if power stations currently fail if everyone turns on their kettle at once, one can only imagine what might happen if we all plugged in our cars at the same time!
The batteries are usually located in the base of the car, underneath the seats. This leaves space under the hood and trunk for storing your belongings.
Hydrogen is a possible alternative to battery-powered electric vehicles. Whilst the car is still powered by electricity, the only emission is pure water – which as we know, is no bad thing, and compared to the nitrous oxides released by internal combustion engines seems positively heavenly. You can also get a good range out of a tank of hydrogen and filling up is remarkably similar to filling up with gas.
However, there is currently a huge lack of filling stations for hydrogen. In the whole of the United States, there are only 39 hydrogen refueling stations – 35 of these are in California. Although with time this infrastructure may improve, there is no guarantee it will catch on, and so the risk is up to you. Because the technology is relatively new, the cars that use these systems tend to cost a lot of money too.
This article has aimed to give you a quick introduction to various fuel sources available on the market today. We hope you have found it useful and informative.
As always, thanks for reading.