In this article, I'll discuss the basic idea behind an engine and then go into detail about how all the pieces fit together, what can go wrong and how to increase performance.
The purpose of a gasoline car engine is to convert gasoline into motion so that your car can move. Currently the easiest way to create motion from gasoline is to burn the gasoline inside an engine. Therefore, a car engine is an internal combustion engine -- combustion takes place internally. Two things to note:
There are different kinds of internal combustion engines. Diesel engines are one form and gas turbine engines are another. See also the articles on HEMI engines, rotary engines and two-stroke engines. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
There is such a thing as an external combustion engine. A steam engine in old-fashioned trains and steam boats is the best example of an external combustion engine. The fuel (coal, wood, oil, whatever) in a steam engine burns outside the engine to create steam, and the steam creates motion inside the engine. Internal combustion is a lot more efficient (takes less fuel per mile) than external combustion, plus an internal combustion engine is a lot smaller than an equivalent external combustion engine. This explains why we don't see any cars from Ford and GM using steam engines. The potato cannon uses the basic principle behind any reciprocating internal combustion engine: If you put a tiny amount of high-energy fuel (like gasoline) in a small, enclosed space and ignite it, an incredible amount of energy is released in the form of expanding gas. You can use that energy to propel a potato 500 feet. In this case, the energy is translated into potato motion. You can also use it for more interesting purposes. For example, if you can create a cycle that allows you to set off explosions like this hundreds of times per minute, and if you can harness that energy in a useful way, what you have is the core of a car engine!
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