There are several defining characteristics that differentiate a rotary engine from a typical piston engine.
Fewer Moving Parts
The rotary engine has far fewer moving parts than a comparable four-stroke piston engine. A two-rotor rotary engine has three main moving parts: the two rotors and the output shaft. Even the simplest four-cylinder piston engine has at least 40 moving parts, including pistons, connecting rods, camshaft, valves, valve springs, rockers, timing belt, timing gears and crankshaft.
This minimization of moving parts can translate into better reliability from a rotary engine. This is why some aircraft manufacturers (including the maker of Skycar) prefer rotary engines to piston engines.
All the parts in a rotary engine spin continuously in one direction, rather than violently changing directions like the pistons in a conventional engine do. Rotary engines are internally balanced with spinning counterweights that are phased to cancel out any vibrations.
The power delivery in a rotary engine is also smoother. Because each combustion event lasts through 90 degrees of the rotor's rotation, and the output shaft spins three revolutions for each revolution of the rotor, each combustion event lasts through 270 degrees of the output shaft's rotation. This means that a single-rotor engine delivers power for three-quarters of each revolution of the output shaft. Compare this to a single-cylinder piston engine, in which combustion occurs during 180 degrees out of every two revolutions, or only a quarter of each revolution of the crankshaft (the output shaft of a piston engine).
Since the rotors spin at one-third the speed of the output shaft, the main moving parts of the engine move slower than the parts in a piston engine. This also helps with reliability.
There are some challenges in designing a rotary engine:
- Typically, it is more difficult (but not impossible) to make a rotary engine meet U.S. emissions regulations.
- The manufacturing costs can be higher, mostly because the number of these engines produced is not as high as the number of piston engines.
- They typically consume more fuel than a piston engine because the thermodynamic efficiency of the engine is reduced by the long combustion-chamber shape and low compression ratio.
For more information on rotary engines and related topics, check out the links below.