Wankel Engine - Design


In the Wankel engine, the four strokes of a typical Otto cycle occur in the space between a three-sided symmetric rotor and the inside of a housing. The expansion phase of the Wankel cycle is much longer than that of the Otto cycle. In the basic single-rotor Wankel engine, the oval-like epitrochoid-shaped housing surrounds a rotor which is triangular with bow-shaped flanks (often confused with a Reuleaux triangle, a three-pointed curve of constant width, but with the bulge in the middle of each side a bit more flattened). The theoretical shape of the rotor between the fixed corners is the result of a minimization of the volume of the geometric combustion chamber and a maximization of the compression ratio, respectively. The symmetric curve connecting two arbitrary apexes of the rotor is maximized in the direction of the inner housing shape with the constraint that it not touch the housing at any angle of rotation (an arc is not a solution of this optimization problem).

The central drive shaft, called the eccentric shaft or E-shaft, passes through the center of the rotor and is supported by fixed bearings. The rotors ride on eccentrics (analogous to cranks) integral to the eccentric shaft (analogous to a crankshaft). The rotors both rotate around the eccentrics and make orbital revolutions around the eccentric shaft. Seals at the corners of the rotor seal against the periphery of the housing, dividing it into three moving combustion chambers. The rotation of each rotor on its own axis is caused and controlled by a pair of synchronizing gears A fixed gear mounted on one side of the rotor housing engages a ring gear attached to the rotor and ensures the rotor moves exactly 1/3 turn for each turn of the eccentric shaft. The power output of the engine is not transmitted through the synchronizing gears. The force of gas pressure on the rotor (to a first approximation) goes directly to the center of the eccentric, part of the output shaft.

The best way to visualize the action of the engine in the animation at left is to look not at the rotor itself, but the cavity created between it and the housing. The Wankel engine is actually a variable-volume progressing-cavity system. Thus there are 3 cavities per housing, all repeating the same cycle. Note as well that points A and B on the rotor and e-shaft turn at different speeds - Point B circles 3 times as often as point A does, so that one full orbit of the rotor equates to 3 turns of the e-shaft.

As the rotor rotates and orbitally revolves, each side of the rotor is brought closer to and then away from the wall of the housing, compressing and expanding the combustion chamber like the strokes of a piston in a reciprocating engine. The power vector of the combustion stage goes through the center of the offset lobe.

While a four-stroke piston engine makes one combustion stroke per cylinder for every two rotations of the crankshaft (that is, one-half power stroke per crankshaft rotation per cylinder), each combustion chamber in the Wankel generates one combustion stroke per driveshaft rotation, i.e. one power stroke per rotor orbital revolution and three power strokes per rotor rotation. Thus, power output of a Wankel engine is generally higher than that of a four-stroke piston engine of similar engine displacement in a similar state of tune; and higher than that of a four-stroke piston engine of similar physical dimensions and weight.

Wankel engines also generally have a much higher redline than a reciprocating engine of similar power output. This is in part because the smoothness inherent in circular motion, but especially because they do not have highly stressed parts such as a crankshaft or connecting rods. Eccentric shafts do not have the stress-raising internal corners of crankshafts. The redline of a rotary engine is limited by wear of the synchronizing gears. Hardened steel gears are used for extended operation above 7000 or 8000 rpm. Mazda Wankel engines in auto racing are operated above 10,000 rpm. In aircraft they are used conservatively, up to 6500 or 7500 rpm. However, as gas pressure participates in seal efficiency, racing a Wankel engine at high rpm under no load conditions can destroy the engine.

National agencies that tax automobiles according to displacement and regulatory bodies in automobile racing variously consider the Wankel engine to be equivalent to a four-stroke engine of 1.5 to 2 times the displacement; some racing series ban it altogether.

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