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Engines of the Future

Engines of the Future

By Jeff Youngs, August 10, 2012

While many automotive companies continue to seek alternatives to the traditional internal-combustion engine, experts agree that finding an affordable alternative compatible with mass production and consumers' wallets is a daunting task.

In the near term, automakers are focused on modifying current internal-combustion engines to increase fuel economy and reduce emissions. Features such as direct fuel injection and cylinder deactivation are increasingly common in today's vehicles. In addition, carmakers are switching to smaller-displacement, turbocharged engines that develop levels of horsepower and torque similar to larger, less fuel-efficient engines.

Consumers are also adopting gas/electric hybrid models in increasing numbers; the Toyota Prius is now one of the best-selling models in the world. Next-generation electric propulsion has begun to arrive in the form of plug-in hybrids that operate purely on battery power for short distances and at certain speeds, and as pure electric vehicles with about 100 miles of range and the ability to fully recharge overnight using a standard household outlet.

Remaining alternatives are either available in very small quantities on a limited basis, or are still dreams in engineers' heads. The Chevrolet Volt is an electric car with an onboard gasoline generator that resolves the limited-range issue inherent in electric vehicles. Honda sells a Civic Sedan that runs on natural gas, and also offers Southern California drivers the ability to lease a fuel-cell vehicle called the FCX Clarity.

A fuel cell converts hydrogen into heat and water and, in the process, produces electricity. In the Honda FCX Clarity, electric motors use the electricity produced by the fuel cell to power the wheels. The only emission from the tailpipe is water vapor in the form of steam. However, until infrastructure is built to accommodate hydrogen vehicles, fuel cells will remain a limited application for vehicle propulsion.

Getting back to the tried-and-true, the internal-combustion engine, a company named Scuderi recently filed to patent a new engine design called a split-cycle engine. With this design, half of the engine's cylinders draw air/fuel mixture in, and half of the engine's cylinders combust and exhaust that mixture. According to Scuderi, this design reduces engine , increases fuel economy, and adds both horsepower and torque compared to other small-displacement engines.

Another type of internal-combustion alternative is called the free-piston engine, which eliminates the traditional crankshaft and pistons of today's engines. Instead, a "free" piston within a closed cylinder, whose action is determined by the combustion cycle and whose energy is harnessed by a compressor or alternator, generates power. Benefits of the free-piston engine include more compact engine , reduced complexity, fewer moving parts, lower maintenance, less friction loss, and variable compression ratio. Currently, Swedish supercar manufacturer Koenigsegg is working on an infinitely variable cam-less twin-turbo V-8 engine.

Certainly, engineers are experimenting with other types of car engines, ranging from solar-powered motors to something called a "shockwave generator." But for the immediate future, it appears that variations of the internal-combustion engine or electric motors remain the most likely sources of vehicle propulsion.

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