New tech breathes life into the combustion engine


With all the talk of electric and fuel cell cars it can seem as if that infernal combustion engine is running on fumes. But there are some new technologies on the horizon that show otherwise.

When we think of automotive innovation we probably don’t immediately think of Sweden unless it involves safety. But then, we don’t immediately think of Sweden when it comes to 1000hp ‘hypercars’ either. Koenigsegg has been around for little over two decades making just that. But it’s the brand’s future tech that sets it apart. The company has been developing something it calls a ‘free-valve actuator’ to take the place of the camshaft in the engine.

A camshaft is a shaft with lobes that is turned by the engine. These lobes push the intake and exhaust valves open at different stages of the combustion cycle. Koenigsegg’s free-valve system will allow each valve to open and close completely individually of one-another. This, the company says, will give massive improvements in efficiency as well as horsepower and torque, and a reduction in emissions. It can even alter valve lift (how far out the valve opens) and valve duration (how long it stays open for) for each individual valve.

But if (or when) this does reach production it is unlikely to be in a car for mere mortals. The cheapest Koenigsegg costs well over six figures. The company has signed a deal with Chinese manufacturer Qoros to use in the its cars but as of yet, only a prototype has been built. What about something that you will soon be able to buy?

Infiniti, Nissan’s luxury division, has unveiled a production ready version of its variable compression engine. As its name suggests, this is an engine that can alter the compression ratio from a “punchy 8:1 to a fuel-sipping 14:1,” as The Drive’s Chris Tsui described it. This refers to how much the fuel-air mixture is compressed by the piston. A 2:1 ratio for example means the cocktail is squashed to half its size, a 4:1 means a quarter, and so on.

Mazda has developed a petrol engine that can use compression to combust the fuel. This is how a diesel engine works but can be harmful to a petrol engine. SKYACTIV-X, set to enter production next year “combines the spark ignition of a petrol engine with the compression ignition of a diesel.” It achieves this by using a lean fuel air ratio, meaning a lot less fuel in relation to air. This is not to say that it has no spark plugs. It uses them when the engine is cold or running at high rpm. But by using compression to ignite the fuel, as well as the leaner mixture, it can achieve 20-30% better efficiency than Mazda’s current engine and, the company claims, lower emissions than electric cars.

While we may all see the future as being electric or hydrogen powered, the combustion engine seems to be on its deathbed. And some may even wonder why these innovations didn’t come sooner. But one thing is certainly clear, we won’t have to give up our engines right away.

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