Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Wankel engine is a type of internal combustion engine, invented by Felix Wankel, which uses a rotor instead of reciprocating pistons. This design promises smooth high-rpm power from a compact, lightweight engine; however Wankels are criticized for poor fuel efficiency and exhaust emissions.
Since its introduction in the NSU Motorenwerke AG (NSU) and Mazda cars of the 1960s, the engine has also been commonly referred to as the "rotary engine"; however, that name also applies to a wide variety of other engine designs, most notably the rotary piston engine once commonly used in aircraft, as well other rotary combustion engine designs such as a more recent concept called the Quasiturbine.
How it works
In the Wankel engine, the four strokes of a typical Otto cycle engine are arranged sequentially around an oval, unlike the reciprocating motion of a piston engine. In the basic single rotor Wankel engine, a single oval (technically an epitrochoid) housing surrounds a three-sided rotor (a Reuleaux triangle) which turns and moves within the housing. The sides of the rotor seal against the sides of the housing, and the corners of the rotor seal against the inner periphery of the housing, dividing it into three combustion chambers.
As the rotor turns, its motion and shape and the shape of the housing cause each side of the rotor to get closer and farther from the wall of the housing, compressing and expanding the combustion chamber similarly to the "strokes" in a reciprocating engine. However, whereas a normal four stroke cycle engine produces one combustion stroke per cylinder for every two revolutions, i.e. one half power stroke per revolution per cylinder, each combustion chamber of each rotor in the Wankel generates one combustion 'stroke' per revolution, i.e. three power strokes per rotor revolution. Since the Wankel output shaft is geared to spin at three times the rotor speed, this becomes one combustion 'stroke' per output shaft revolution per rotor, twice as many as the four-stroke piston engine, and similar to the output of a two stroke cycle engine. Thus, power output of a Wankel engine is generally higher than that of a four-stroke piston engine of similar engine displacement in a similar state of tune, and higher than that of a four-stroke piston engine of similar physical dimensions and weight. National agencies which tax automobiles according to displacement and regulatory bodies in automobile racing variously consider the Wankel engine to be equivalent to a four-stroke engine of 1.5 times to twice the displacement; some racing regulatory agencies view it as offering so pronounced an advantage that they ban it altogether.
Wankel engines have several major advantages over reciprocating piston designs, in addition to having higher output for similar displacement and physical size. Wankel engines are considerably simpler and contain far fewer moving parts; for instance, because valving is accomplished by simple ports cut into the walls of the rotor housing, they have no valves or complex valve trains; in addition, since the rotor is geared directly to the output shaft, there is no need for connecting rods, a conventional crankshaft, crankshaft balance weights , etc. The elimination of these parts not only makes a Wankel engine much lighter (typically half that of a conventional engine with equivalent power), but it also completely eliminates the reciprocating mass of a piston engine with its internal strain and inherent vibration due to repetitious acceleration and deceleration, producing not only a smoother flow of power but also the ability to produce more power by running at higher rpm. In addition to the enhanced reliability due to the elimination of this reciprocating strain on internal parts, the construction of the engine, with an iron rotor within a housing made of aluminum which has greater thermal expansion, ensures that even when grossly overheated the Wankel engine will not seize, as an overheated piston engine is likely to do; this has substantial benefit for aircraft use.
The simplicity of design and smaller size of the Wankel engine also allow for a savings in construction costs, compared to piston engines of comparable power output.
As another advantage, the shape of the Wankel combustion chamber and the turbulence induced by the moving rotor prevent localized hot spots from forming, thereby allowing the use of fuel of very low octane number without preignition or detonation, a particular advantage for Hydrogen cars. This feature also led to a great deal of interest in the Soviet Union, where high octane gasoline was rare.
The design of the Wankel engine with its numerous sliding seals and its housing, typically built as a sandwich of cast iron and aluminum pieces which expand and contract by different degrees when exposed to heating and cooling cycles in use, led to a very high incidence of loss of sealing, both between the rotor and the housing and also between the various pieces making up the housing. Further engineering work by Mazda brought these problems under control, but unfortunately, they were then confronted with a sudden global concern over both hydrocarbon emission and a rise in the cost of gasoline, the two most serious drawbacks of the Wankel engine.
Just as the shape of the Wankel combustion chamber prevents preignition, it also leads to incomplete combustion of the air-fuel charge, with the remaining unburned hydrocarbons released into the exhaust. At first, while manufacturers of piston engined cars were turning to expensive catalytic converters to completely oxidize the unburned hydrocarbons, Mazda was able to avoid this cost by paradoxically enriching the air/fuel mixture enough to produce an exhaust stream which was rich enough in hydrocarbons to actually support complete combustion in a 'thermal reactor' (just an enlarged open chamber in the exhaust manifold) without the need for a catalytic converter, thereby producing a clean exhaust at the cost of some extra fuel consumption.
Unfortunately for Mazda, their switch to this solution was immediately followed by a sharp rise in the cost of gasoline worldwide, so that not only the added fuel cost of their 'thermal reactor' design, but even the basically lower fuel economy of the Wankel engine caused their sales to drop alarmingly.
Another disadvantage of the Wankel engine is the difficulty of expanding the engine to more than two rotors. The complex shapes of the rotor, housing, and output shaft and the way they fit together requires that engines with more than two rotors use an output shaft made of several sections assembled during the assembly of the rest of the engine. While this technique has been used successfully in Wankel powered racing cars, it negates a great deal of the relative simplicity and lower cost of the Wankel engine construction.
Wankel first conceived his rotary engine in 1924 and finally received a patent for it in 1929. He worked through the 1940s to improve the design. Considerable effort went into designing rotary engines in the 1950s and 1960s. They were particularly interesting because of their being smooth and very quiet running, and the reliability resulting from their simplicity.
In Britain, Norton Motorcycles developed a Wankel rotary engine for motorcycles, which was included in their Commander; Suzuki also produced a production motorcycle with a Wankel engine, the RE-5. John Deere Inc, in the US, had a major research effort in rotary engines and designed a version which was capable of using a variety of fuels without changing the engine. The design was proposed as the power source for several US Marine combat vehicles in the late 1980s.
After occasional use in automobiles, for instance by NSU with their Ro 80 model, CitroŽn with the M35 and GS Birotor using engines produced by Comotor, and abortive attempts by General Motors and Mercedes Benz to design Wankel engined automobiles, the most extensive automotive use of the Wankel engine has been by the Japanese company, Mazda.
After years of development, Mazda's first Wankel engined car was the 1967 Mazda Cosmo. The company followed with a number of Wankel ("rotary" in the company's terminology) vehicles, including a bus and a pickup truck. Customers generally loved them, notably the smoothness. However they had the very bad luck of being released during the middle of efforts to decrease emissions and increase fuel economy. Mazda later abandoned the Wankel from most of their automotive designs, but continued using it in their RX-7 sports car until August of 2002, although RX-7 importation for North America ceased with the 1995 model year. The company normally used two-rotor designs, but received considerable attention with their 1991 Eunos Cosmo, which used a twin-turbo three-rotor engine. In 2003, Mazda relaunched the rotary with the new RX-8.
The Malibu Grand Prix chain, similar in concept to commercial recreational kart racing tracks, operates several venues in the United States where a customer can purchase several laps around a track in a vehicle very similar to open wheel racing vehicles, but powered by a small Curtiss-Wright rotary engine.
Although VAZ (the Soviet automobile manufacturer, now Autovaz ) is known to have produced Wankel engined automobiles, and Aviadvigatel , the Soviet aircraft engine design bureau, is known to have produced Wankel engines for aircraft and helicopters, little specific information has surfaced in the outside world; what has been seen indicates a general similarity to Wankel designs by NSU, Comotor, and Mazda, therefore it is likely that many Western patents were infringed upon by these designs, the probable reason for their being hidden.
The People's Republic of China is also known to have experimented with Wankel engines, but even less is known in the West about the work done there, other than one paper, #880628, delivered to the SAE in 1988 by Chen Teluan of the South China Institute of Technology at Guangzhou.
In the racing world, Mazda has had substantial success with two-rotor, three-rotor, and four-rotor cars, and private racers have also had considerable success with stock and modified Mazda Wankel-engined cars.
The Sigma MC74 powered by a Mazda 12A engine was the first engine and team from outside Western Europe or the United States to finish the entire 24 hours of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, in 1974. Mazda is the only team from outside Western Europe or the United States to have won Le Mans outright and the only non-piston engine ever to win Le Mans, which the company accomplished in 1991 with their four-rotor 787B (2622 cc actual displacement, rated by FIA formula at 4708 cc). Mazda is also the most reliable finisher at LeMans (with the exception of Honda, who have entered only three cars in only one year), with 67% of entries finishing.
The Mazda RX-7 has won more IMSA races in its class than any other model of automobile, with its one hundredth victory on September 2, 1990. Following that, the RX-7 won its class in the IMSA 24 hours of Daytona race ten years in a row, starting in 1982. The RX7 won the IMSA Grand Touring Under Two Liter (GTU) championship each year from 1980 through 1987, inclusive.
The Wankel's superb power-to-weight ratio and reliability make it particularly well suited to aircraft engine use. There was intense interest in them in this role in the 1950s when the design was first becoming well known, but it was at this same time that almost the entire industry was moving to the jet engine, which many believed would be the only engine in use within a decade. The Wankel suffered from a lack of interest, and when it later became clear that the jet engine was far too expensive for all roles, the general aviation world had already shrunk so much that there was little money for new engine designs. Nevertheless, interest in them for small aircraft has continued.
The first rotary engined aircraft was the experimental Lockheed Q-Star civilian version of the US Army's reconnaissance QT-2, basically a powered Schweizer sailplane, in 1968 or 1969. It was powered by a 185 horsepower (138 kW) Curtiss-Wright RC2-60 Wankel rotary engine.
Wankels have made something of a comeback in recent years. None of their advantages have been lost in comparison to other engines, and the introduction of better materials has helped the tip-seal (Apex-seal) problem. They are being found increasingly in roles where their compact size and quiet running is important, notably in drones, or UAVs. Many companies and hobbyists adapt Mazda rotary engines to aircraft use; others, including Wankel GmbH itself, manufacture Wankel rotary engines dedicated for the purpose.
Small Wankel engines are being found increasingly in other roles, such as go-karts, personal water craft and auxiliary power units for aircraft. The Graupner /O.S. 49-PI is a 1.27 horsepower 5 cc Wankel engine for model airplane use which has been in production essentially unchanged since 1970; even with a large muffler, the entire package weighs only 13.4 ounces.
The simplicity of the Wankel makes it ideal for mini, micro, and micro-mini engine designs. The MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS) Rotary Engine Lab at the University of California at Berkeley has been developing Wankel engines approximately the size of an American penny (4-5 mm in diameter), displacing 0.0775 cc, and is developing even smaller engines, approximately 1 mm in diameter, made of silicon and driven by compressed air. The goal is to eventually develop an internal combustion engine that will deliver 100 milliwatts of electrical power; the engine itself will serve as the rotor of the generator, with magnets built into the engine rotor itself.
The largest Wankel engine was built by Ingersoll-Rand ; available in 550 horsepower one rotor and 1100 horsepower two rotor versions, displacing 41 liters per rotor with a rotor approximately one meter in diameter, it was available between 1975 and 1985. It was derived from a previous, unsuccessful, Curtiss-Wright design, which failed because of a well-known problem with all internal combustion engines; the fixed speed at which the flame front travels limits the distance combustion can travel from the point of ignition in a given time, and thereby the maximum size of the cylinder or rotor chamber which can be used. This problem was solved by limiting the engine speed to only 1200 rpm and use of natural gas as fuel; this was particularly well chosen, as one of the major uses of the engine was to drive pumps on natural gas pipelines.
Aside from being used for internal combustion engines, the basic Wankel design has also been utilized for air compressors, and superchargers for internal combustion engines, but in these cases, although the design still offers advantages in reliability, the basic advantages of the Wankel in size and weight over the four-stroke internal combustion engine are not relevant. In a design using a Wankel supercharger on a Wankel engine, the supercharger is twice the size of the engine!
Perhaps the most exotic use of the Wankel design is in the seat belt pretensioner system of the Volkswagen New Beetle. In this car, when deceleration sensors sense a potential crash, small blank cartridges are triggered electrically, and the resulting pressurized gas feeds into tiny Wankel engines which rotate to take up the slack in the seat belt systems, anchoring the driver and passengers firmly in the seat before any collision.
- "Compendium of Production and Experimental Wankel Engine Data." Monito.com. Accessed on February 24, 2005.
- How Wankel Engines Work
- Wankel Rotary Combustion Engines (WRCE)
- Animated Engines: Wankel Engine
- Wankel's biography and engine
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