Today in history – Felix Wankel, the inventor of the Wankel rotary engine, was born. I’m a Wankel freak. I love Wankel rotary engines, I think they’re one of the most beautiful mechanical devices of all time. Call me a geek, call me a weirdo…whatever, I love it when you talk dirty.
When I was young, I saw the innards of an old, junked Mazda Cosmo at my fathers salvage yard. I heard about this crazy motor out in the yard and decided to check it out; I knew the basics of how piston engines worked, and figured this strange thing would be pretty fun to mess around with. But sitting there, with it’s seals broken and rotors immovable, it blew my mind. It was just an oval with a triangle in it. That’s it. I had no idea how it worked or how it moved or anything. How could this thing power a car?
The Mazda Cosmo was the first 2-rotor rotary engine powered car.
So I looked up and read everything I could find about Wankel engines and about Felix Wankel, and that really blew my mind. The Wankel engine has basically one moving part, and it just spins. And it has a higher power to weight ratio than any traditional engine.
So why aren’t more automakers producing Wankel powered cars?
Because they already have a motor that works. The traditional piston engine does it’s job well, and these are hefty multi-billion dollar companies. It would be near impossible to steer these behemoths away from something that works and towards some weirdo engine with a cult following.
As I read about the rotary engine, I learned that the inside chamber isn’t an oval, it’s an epitrochoid. And the triangle rotor isn’t just a triangle, it’s what’s called a curve of constant width, or a Reuleaux polygon. Wankel engines are serious business. Instead of just a cylinder inside another cylinder, which is a very primal design for humans, the Wankel is pure simplicity via mathematical precision.
This is why most mechanics and engineers who understand Wankel engines are so enamored with them. They appeal to mechanically minded people because they’re such an elegant solution to a complex problem. Instead of having three separate pistons and all the bits associated with them, the rotary engine just has a triangle rotor, and each side works as a combustion chamber. It just spins. Quiet, harmonious, elegant spinning.
In contrast to the Wankel engine, the piston engine has a veritable army of moving parts. Cylinders, connecting rods, crankshafts, timing belt, camshaft, rocker arms, valves. There are countless little bits and pieces flickering away under the hood of the average car, creating that violent shaking. Meanwhile, the Wankel just spins around the eccentric shaft. That’s the only moving part. Really.
The common objections to Wankel engines are ‘fuel efficiency’ and ‘reliability’, and those issues really just boil down to one thing, the seals. The combustion chambers inside the Wankel are constantly moving, so the seals (the apex seals and the seals against the chamber ends) are of major importance. Those are problems, not huge ones, but problems nonetheless. They’re nothing that a few years of competing automotive firms couldn’t fix, though.
You have to realize that Wankel’s are still on the fringes, despite the RX-7s and RX-8s, they’re essentially ignored by everyone else. They never really had a chance to get the kinks worked out by competition. Competition gets lots of minds working on the same problems, and that’s how you get real progress.
But, the first step in trying to change something is education. So, in honor of Felix Wankel’s 106th birthday today, August 13th, 2008; let’s get educated.
How it works:
Just about all internal combustion engines today are four-stroke engines. The four strokes are intake, compression, combustion and exhaust.
A traditional piston engine performs them all in each piston. The piston moves down, a camshaft opens the intake valve, and the air/fuel mixture gets sucked in. The piston moves up, compressing the mixture into a very small space. The spark plugs fire, creating combustion, which pushes the piston downwards, creates the force that moves the car; and turns the camshaft, which opens the exhaust valve. Lots of moving parts, still pretty simple. But that cycle takes place separately in each cylinder.
In a Wankel rotary engine, on the other hand, each side of the triangular rotor acts like a cylinder in a piston engine. As one side of the rotor is sucking in the air/fuel mixture, the other side is compressing another air/fuel mixture and getting ready for combustion; and the third side is expelling the exhaust from combustion that has already happened in that chamber. As the rotor moves, it closes off the intake or exhaust port, making camshafts and valves irrelevant. A Wankel engine car with two rotors (3 sides on each rotor = 6 sides or 6 combustion chambers) is equivalent to a traditional V6 car (6 cylinders = 6 combustion chambers).
It sounds complicated, but it’s not really. If you’re still having problems visualizing it, this should offer some clarification:
So, it’s a badass machine. It’s beautiful, it’s elegant, and it works perfectly. Hopefully Mazda will keep the dream alive and keep producing cars in their RX series, like the awesome 2009 Mazda RX-8. Thanks Felix.
Felix Wankel was born in Lahr, Germany in 1902. He never went to college, never got a degree in engineering, and was never even able to become an engineers apprentice. He taught himself engineering and was able to put together the first prototype Wankel rotary engine in the mid 1950s.