While there are a number of engine types that cater to a diverse set of industries, the most popular type in use today is the reciprocating aircraft engine. Often called a piston engine, reciprocating engines are one of two types of combustion engines that work by combusting fuel to produce energy. Surpassing its predecessor, the rotary engine, which has four separate compartments that perform intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust, reciprocating engines carry out each task within a single cylinder.
Reciprocating engines operate by converting chemical energy into mechanical energy through the process of combustion. The power comes from pressurizing fuel via pistons to generate combustion, producing a circular, rotational motion. This process is referred to as the four-stroke cycle, consisting of a repeating pattern of intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust.
The first step in this process is intake, in which fuel is delivered into the cylinder, pushing the piston to the bottom. The next step is compression, where the piston is pushed to the top of the cylinder, placing pressure on the fuel. This allows the spark plug to ignite the fuel, kickstarting combustion and pushing the piston back down to create energy. Lastly, exhaust allows waste to be released and the cycle is repeated.
There are two primary reciprocating engine designs: spark ignition and compression ignition. In fact, the former served as the powerplant of choice for many years. In an effort to reduce operating costs, generate increased reliability, and simplify its design, the compression ignition engine became a feasible alternative. Usually referred to as a jet fuel piston engine, compression ignition engines utilize lower-cost diesel or jet fuel, making them an ideal choice for many operations.
Both engines utilize cylindrical combustion chambers and pistons that extend the length of the cylinders to convert linear motion into the rotary motion of the crankshaft. The major difference between the two lies in the way they ignite fuel. Spark ignition engines use a spark plug to ignite the fuel-air mixture while compression ignition engines compress the air in the cylinder first, raising it to a temperature that allows for automatic ignition when the fuel is delivered into the cylinder.
Over time, reciprocating engines have proven to be more efficient. Today, they find use in race cars, providing higher torque value. Moreover, reciprocating engines come in a variety of configurations, allowing operators to acquire designs that fit their specific operational needs. Similar to any engine type, reciprocating engines need to be properly maintained and serviced to increase longevity and output. A control system should be put in place to monitor engine speed, torque, air-to-fuel ratio, exhaust temperature, air manifold pressure, ignition timing, and more, allowing operators to catch any damages or malfunctions ahead of time.
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