What is Torque?

Torque is a force that tends to rotate or turn things. You generate a torque any time you apply a force using a wrench. Tightening the lug nuts on your wheels is a good example. When you use a wrench, you apply a force to the handle. This force creates a torque on the lug nut, which tends to turn the lug nut.

English units of torque are pound-inches or pound-feet; the SI unit is the Newton-meter. Notice that the torque units contain a distance and a force. To calculate the torque, you just multiply the force by the distance from the center. In the case of the lug nuts, if the wrench is a foot long, and you put 200 pounds of force on it, you are generating 200 pound-feet of torque. If you use a 2-foot wrench, you only need to put 100 pounds of force on it to generate the same torque.

A car engine creates torque and uses it to spin the crankshaft. This torque is created exactly the same way: A force is applied at a distance. Let's take a close look at some of the engine parts:

Figure 2. How torque is generated in one cylinder of a four-stroke engine

The combustion of gas in the cylinder creates pressure against the piston. That pressure creates a force on the piston, which pushes it down. The force is transmitted from the piston to the connecting rod, and from the connecting rod into the crankshaft. In Figure 2, notice that the point where the connecting rod attaches to the crank shaft is some distance from the center of the shaft. The horizontal distance changes as the crankshaft spins, so the torque also changes, since torque equals force multiplied by distance.

You might be wondering why only the horizontal distance is important in determining the torque in this engine. You can see in Figure 2 that when the piston is at the top of its stroke, the connecting rod points straight down at the center of the crankshaft. No torque is generated in this position, because only the force that acts on the lever in a direction perpendicular to the lever generates a torque.