How Car Engines Work

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Engine Lubrication, Fuel, Exhaust and Electrical Systems

The exhaust system of a Porsche 911.
The exhaust system of a Porsche 911.

When it comes to day-to-day car maintenance, your first concern is probably the amount of gas in your car. How does the gas that you put in power the cylinders? The engine's fuel system pumps gas from the gas tank and mixes it with air so that the proper air/fuel mixture can flow into the cylinders. Fuel is delivered in three common ways: carburetion, port fuel injection and direct fuel injection.

  • In carburetion, a device called a carburetor mixes gas into air as the air flows into the engine.
  • In a fuel-injected engine, the right amount of fuel is injected individually into each cylinder either right above the intake valve (port fuel injection) or directly into the cylinder (direct fuel injection).

See How Fuel Injection Systems Work for more details.

Oil also plays an important part. The lubrication system makes sure that every moving part in the engine gets oil so that it can move easily. The two main parts needing oil are the pistons (so they can slide easily in their cylinders) and any bearings that allow things like the crankshaft and camshafts to rotate freely. In most cars, oil is sucked out of the oil pan by the oil pump, run through the oil filter to remove any grit, and then squirted under high pressure onto bearings and the cylinder walls. The oil then trickles down into the sump, where it is collected again and the cycle repeats.

Now that you know about some of the stuff that you put in your car, let's look at some of the stuff that comes out of it. The exhaust system includes the exhaust pipe and the muffler. Without a muffler, what you would hear is the sound of thousands of small explosions coming out your tailpipe. A muffler dampens the sound. The exhaust system also includes a catalytic converter. See How Catalytic Converters Work for details.

The emission control system in modern cars consists of a catalytic converter, a collection of sensors and actuators, and a computer to monitor and adjust everything. For example, the catalytic converter uses a catalyst and oxygen to burn off any unused fuel and certain other chemicals in the exhaust. An oxygen sensor in the exhaust stream makes sure there is enough oxygen available for the catalyst to work and adjusts things if necessary.

Besides gas, what else powers your car? The electrical system consists of a battery and an alternator. The alternator is connected to the engine by a belt and generates electricity to recharge the battery. The battery makes 12-volt power available to everything in the car needing electricity (the ignition system, radio, headlights, windshield wipers, power windows and seats, computers, etc.) through the vehicle's wiring.

Now that you know all about the main engine subsystems, let's look at ways that you can boost engine performance.