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10 Most Recent Questions and Answers (out of 24)

1458. What is the difference between spark ignition engines and diesel engines? — JC
Just before burning their fuels, both engines compress air inside a sealed cylinder. This compression process adds energy to the air and causes its temperature to skyrocket. In a spark ignition engine, the air that's being compressed already contains fuel so this rising temperature is a potential problem. If the fuel and air ignite spontaneously, the engine will "knock" and won't operate at maximum efficiency. The fuel and air mixture is expected to wait until it's ignited at the proper instant by the spark plug. That's why gasoline is formulated to resist ignition below a certain temperature. The higher the "octane" of the gasoline, the higher its certified ignition temperature. Virtually all modern cars operate properly with regular gasoline. Nonetheless, people frequently put high-octane (high-test or premium) gasoline in their cars under the mistaken impression that their cars will be better for it. If your car doesn't knock significantly with regular gasoline, use regular gasoline.

A diesel engine doesn't have spark ignition. Instead, it uses the high temperature caused by extreme compression to ignite its fuel. It compresses pure air to high temperature and pressure, and then injects fuel into this air. Timed to arrive at the proper instant, the fuel bursts into flames and burns quickly in the superheated compressed air. In contrast to gasoline, diesel fuel is formulated to ignite easily as soon as it enters hot air.

1251. How does an automatic transmission in a car work? — ORL, Trondheim, Norway
An automatic transmission contains two major components: a fluid coupling that controls the transfer of torque from the engine to the rest of the transmission and a gearbox that controls the mechanical advantage between the engine and the wheels. The fluid coupling resembles two fans with a liquid circulating between them. The engine turns one fan, technically known as an "impeller," and this impeller pushes transmission fluid toward the second impeller. As the liquid flows through the second impeller, it exerts a twist (a "torque") on the impeller. If the car is moving or is allowed to move, this torque will cause the impeller to turn and, with it, the wheels of the car. If, however, the car is stopped and the brake is on, the transmission fluid will flow through the second impeller without effect. Overall, the fluid coupling allows the efficient transfer of power from the engine to the wheels without any direct mechanical linkage that would cause trouble when the car comes to a stop.

Between the second impeller and the wheels is a gearbox. The second impeller of the fluid coupling causes several of the gears in this box to turn and they, in turn, cause other gears to turn. Eventually, this system of gears causes the wheels of the car to turn. Along with these gears are several friction plates that can be brought into contact with one another by the transmission to change the relative rotation rates between the second impeller and the car's wheels. These changes in relative rotation rate give the car the variable mechanical advantage it needs to be able to both climb steep hills and drive fast on flat roadways.

Finally, some cars combine parts of the gear box with the fluid coupling in what is called a "torque converter." Here the two impellers in the fluid coupling have different shapes so that they naturally turn at different rates. This asymmetric arrangement eliminates the need for some gears in the gearbox itself.

1220. Does it make sense to raise the thermostat setting on your air conditioner when you leave your house, since when you come back, you have to lower it again and the unit has to work more? Are there any energy savings? — AN, Herndon, VA
You will save energy and money by raising the thermostat setting when you leave your home and then lower it again when you return. That's because the rate at which heat flows into your home from outside is roughly proportional to the difference between the indoor and outdoor temperatures. By letting the indoor temperature rise, you slow the heat flow into your home. With less heat flowing into your home, the air conditioner doesn't have to pump as much heat outside and that saves energy. Moreover, an air conditioner is more energy efficient when the indoor temperature is closer to the outdoor temperature, so letting the indoor air warm up saves even more energy. While the air conditioner does have to work steadily for a while when you return to your home, its efficiency is still good during that time and the energy saved while you were away more than makes up for the energy consumed when you return.

1211. How does a catalytic converter help emissions in a car? — JAM, Littleton, Colorado
While the burned gases that emerge from an ideal car engine would consist only of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen gas, a real car engine is far from ideal. In addition to these gases, a real engine emits nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and various unburned hydrocarbons left over from the gasoline. Because these gases are major contributors to urban smog, car manufacturers have been forced to reduce them in various ways.

One of the most effective tools for eliminating the unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide is a catalytic converter. It is essentially a pipe containing a ceramic honeycomb on which there are countless tiny particles of platinum and palladium. As the unwanted molecules pass through the honeycomb, they land on the metal particles briefly and are combined with oxygen atoms to form water vapor and carbon dioxide. The catalytic converter is burning these molecules in a controlled way, with the precious metal particles acting as catalysts to assist the burning process.

Like all catalysts, these particles are not consumed in the process of burning the gases, but they can easily be contaminated. That's why it's so important not to put leaded gasoline in a car with a catalytic converter—one tank of leaded gas is all it takes to lead-coat the tiny platinum and palladium particles and to render them useless. Another interesting note is that the catalytic converter is usually located on the underside of the car, protected only by a thin metal shield. The converter becomes very hot in operation, both because hot exhaust gas is passing through it and because the controlled combustion taking place inside it heats it up. Don't park a car with a catalytic converter over a pile of leaves! Many an autumn car fire has started when a hot catalytic converter ignited the pile of leaves beneath it.

1189. I heard some time ago about a car that uses microwaves to heat the air in front of it so that it creates a vacuum. The relatively higher pressure behind then pushes it forward. Is this possible? — RM, Toronto, Ontario
Even if microwaves were effective at heating air, which they are not, this heating would not propel the car forward. The air in front of the car would become hot, but its pressure would remain almost unchanged. Instead, the air would expand to occupy a larger volume and would then be lifted upward by the cooler air around it ("hot air rises"). Cooler air would flow in to replace the escaping hot air and the car would simply sit there with a steady stream of hot air rising in front of it.

1188. Could you suspend a car on hot air produced below it? — RM, Toronto, Ontario
For the buoyancy of hot air to suspend a car, you would need a lot of it—in effect you would have to turn the car into a hot air balloon. That's because the lifting force experienced by hot air is really supplied by the cooler air around it and this upward buoyant force is proportional to the volume of hot air being lifted. Since a car is pretty heavy, the volume of hot air required will be enormous.

However, if you trap the air underneath the car, so that its volume can't increase, and then heat that air, its pressure will rise. This increased pressure below the car would produce an overall upward pressure force on the car and could support the car's weight. In effect, you would be creating a ground-effect hovercraft in which the elevated pressure of trapped hot air supports the weight of the vehicle. But it would be easier and less energy-intensive to pump air underneath your hovercraft with a big fan. That's what most ground-effect vehicles do. They pack extra air molecules underneath themselves and then allow those molecules to support their weight. Furthermore, because air molecules are always leaking out from beneath the vehicle, you'll need a fan to replace them anyway.

1126. How much steam is required to produce a unit of power? — DKB, Dubai
There is no easy answer to this question, but for an interesting reason. First, "power" is a measure of energy per time (e.g. joules per second or BTUs per hour) so any answer would have to involve the amount of steam per time (e.g. kilograms per second or cubic meters per hour). But even recognizing that requirement, I can't answer the question. First, I'd need to know the temperature of the steam. The hotter the steam, the more thermal energy it contains and the more energy it could provide. For more complicated reasons, I'd also have to know the pressure of the steam. But there is a fourth issue: even knowing the amount of steam involved and the temperature and pressure of that steam, the amount of useful energy that can be extracted from that steam depends on the existence of a colder object. You can't turn thermal energy—the type of energy that steam contains—directly into useful work or into electric energy in a continuous manner. You must use the steam in a "heat engine", converting a fraction of its thermal energy into work as that thermal energy flows as heat from the hot steam to a colder object. This requirement is established by the laws of thermodynamics and there is no way to get around it. The hotter the steam and the colder the object, the larger the fraction of the steam's thermal energy you can convert to work. However, there is no way to convert all of the steam's thermal energy into work continuously.

1119. I understand that for a steam engine to produce useful work, you need a difference in temperatures. My question is whether the difference in temperatures between cold glacier ice and the warmer air could be used to drive a steam engine and generate electricity. — LNH & AJH, Juneau, Alaska
As you clearly recognize, any heat engine—a machine that converts thermal energy into work—can only do its job while heat is flowing from a hotter object to a colder object. That limitation is imposed by the second law of thermodynamics—a statistical law that observes that the disorder of an isolated system can never decrease. A heat engine's theoretical efficiency at turning thermal energy into work improves as the temperature difference between its hotter and colder objects increases. Since the air temperature is hotter than the glacier temperature, there is the possibility to convert some of the air's thermal energy into work as heat flows from the air to the glacier. In short, what you suggest could be done.

Unfortunately, most practical heat engines work best when the hotter object is really hot. For example, a steam engine works best when the hotter object is hot enough to produce very high temperature, high pressure steam. To operate a steam engine with outside air as the hotter object and cold ice as the colder object, the steam engine would have to operate at very low pressure. In fact, it would operate well below atmospheric pressure in a carefully sealed environment. Steam might not even be the best choice for a working fluid—you might do better with a refrigerant such as the various Freon replacements. In effect, your heat engine would be an air conditioner run backward—providing electric power rather than consuming it. Although this could be done, it would probably not be cost effective. The heat exchangers needed to obtain heat from the air and to deliver most of that heat to the glacier, as well as all the machinery of the heat engine itself, would probably make the electricity you generated too expensive. Just because something can be done doesn't mean that it's worth doing. Until other sources of energy become more expensive, this one won't pay for itself.

1091. What is the difference between internal and external combustion engines?
External combustion engines burn a fuel outside of the engine and produce a hot working fluid that then powers the engine. The classic example of an external combustion engine is a steam engine. Internal combustion engines burn fuel directly in the engine and use the fuel and the gases resulting from its combustion as the working fluid that powers the engine. An automobile engine is a fine example of an internal combustion engine.

995. How much electric current is there in an automobile spark plug? — DG, Brooklyn, NY
Without measuring it directly, I would guess that the current passing through a spark plug during a spark is about 10 milliamperes. I base that guess both on a calculation—assuming sensible values for the energy, voltage, and duration of the spark—and on my experience with electric sparks. If I have a chance to measure the current directly—I have the equipment but not the time—I'll put a more specific value here.
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