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Self Study

- Wankel Rotary Engines

Vineet Mathew

The rotary engine was an early type of internal-combustion engine, usually
designed with an odd number of cylinders per row in a radial configuration,
in which the crankshaft remained stationary, with the entire crankcase and
its attached cylinders rotating around it as a unit in operation. Its main
application was in aviation, although it also saw use before its primary
aviation role, in a few early motorcycles and automobiles.

This type of engine was widely used as an alternative to conventional inline

engines (straight or V) during World War I and the years immediately
preceding that conflict. They have been described as "a very efficient
solution to the problems of power output, weight, and reliability".[1]

By the early 1920s, however, the inherent limitations of this type of engine
had rendered it obsolete, with the power output increasingly going into
overcoming the air-resistance of the spinning engine itself. The rotating mass
of the engine also had a significant gyroscopic precession: depending on the
type of aircraft, this produced stability and control problems, especially for
inexperienced pilots. Another factor in the demise of the rotary was the
fundamentally inefficient use of fuel and lubricating oil, caused in part by the
need to aspirate the fuel/air mixture through the hollow crankshaft and
crankcase, as in a two-stroke engine.
A rotary engine is essentially a standard Otto cycle engine, but instead of
having a fixed cylinder block with rotating crankshaft as with a
conventional radial engine, the crankshaft remains stationary and the entire
cylinder block rotates around it. In the most common form, the crankshaft
was fixed solidly to the airframe, and the propeller was simply bolted onto
the front of the crankcase.

Wankel Rotary Engine

The type of rotary engine used in automobiles is called the Wankel Rotary
Engine. In this type of engine the crankshaft also moves.

A rotary engine is an internal combustion engine, like the engine in your car,
but it works in a completely different way than the conventional piston
In a piston engine, the same volume of space (the cylinder) alternately does
four different jobs -- intake, compression, combustion and exhaust. A rotary
engine does these same four jobs, but each one happens in its own part of
the housing. It's kind of like having a dedicated cylinder for each of the four
jobs, with the piston moving continually from one to the next.
The rotary engine (originally conceived and developed by Dr. Felix Wankel) is
sometimes called a Wankel engine, or Wankel rotary engine.

Operating Principles of the Rotary Engine

The main parts of the rotary engine include an eccentric shaft, a three-flank
rotor, and a trochoid housing. In figure 2 (19), the three-flank rotor rotates
about its center of gravity and at the same time rotates around the
crankshaft centerline. The rotor turns at one-third of the crankshaft speed,
driven by a gear on the crankshaft. The three corners of the rotor divide the
trochoid-shaped rotor housing into three working chambers (i.e., trochoid
chamber). Each working chamber executes a full four-stroke cycle on each
rotation of the rotor. Thus, the engine achieves one power stroke per
revolution of the crankshaft. The system is completely balanced by
counterbalancing the crankshaft. As an example, unlike the four-stroke
reciprocating engines, rotary engines do not have intake and exhaust valves
to control flowthrough the intake and exhaust ports.

The fuel-air mixture enters into the first chamber during the intake process
for the rotary engine; the fuel-air mixture is then compressed as the rotor
rotates during the compression process. For an SCRE, air enters into the
combustion chamber, and fuel is injected and mixed with the air during the
compression process. When the compressed fuel-air mixture reaches its
target spark timing, a spark plug ignites the fuel-air mixture, and the
combusted gases expand during the expansion process. The expansion
continues until the rotor reaches the exhaust port where the combustion
products exit. These processes take place in all three chambers at the same
time. Three events of combustion are achieved in every rotation of the rotor
within the housing. This leads to a flatter torque curve for the rotary engine
compared with a one-cylinder reciprocating engine in which combustion
occurs for every two revolutions of the crankshaft.

A significant difference between the two engines is the shape of the

combustion chamber in all processes, as shown in figure 3. In the rotary

engine, the combustion volume is traveling while the combustion process

takes place. The main difference between the mechanisms of the two
engines to get the turning force is in the expansion process, as shown in
figure 4 (46). The combustion gases in the reciprocating engine force the
piston down, and the mechanical force is transferred to the connection rod,
which rotates the crankshaft. However, the combustion gases in the rotary
engine exert force to the flank of the rotor. As a result, one of the three flanks
of a triangle is forced toward the center of the eccentric shaft. This
movement consists of two divided forces: one being the force toward the
crankshaft center and the other being the tangential force that rotates the
crankshaft. The trochoid chamber is always divided into three working
chambers. Because of the rotation of the rotor, the three working chambers
are always in motion and successively execute the four processes of intake,
compression, ignition and expansion, and exhaust inside the trochoid
chamber. Each process takes place in a different location in the trochoid
chamber, whereas the four processes take place within each cylinder in the
reciprocating engine.

Three key factors contributed to the rotary engine's success at the time:[2]

Smooth running: Rotaries delivered power very smoothly because

(relative to the engine mounting point) there are no reciprocating parts,
and the relatively large rotating mass of the cylinders acted as a flywheel.

Weight advantage: many conventional engines had to have heavy

flywheels added to smooth out power impulses and reduce vibration.
Rotary engines gained a substantial power-to-weight ratio advantage by
having no need for an added flywheel.

Improved cooling: when the engine was running the rotating cylinder
block created its own fast-moving cooling airflow, even with the aircraft at

Most rotary engines were arranged with the cylinders pointing outwards from
a single crankshaft, in the same general form as a radial, but there were also
rotary boxer engines[3] and even one-cylinder rotaries.
Like radial engines, rotaries were generally built with an odd number of
cylinders (usually either 7 or 9), so that a consistent every-other-piston firing
order could be maintained, to provide smooth running. Rotary engines with
an even number of cylinders were mostly of the "two row" type.
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
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 combustionchamber shape and low compression ratio

The Mazda Wankel engines (a type of rotary combustion engine) comprise

a family of car engines derived from experiments in the early 1960s by Felix
Wankel, a German engineer. Over the years, displacement has been
increased and turbocharging has been added.
Mazda rotary engines have a reputation for being relatively small and
powerful at the expense of poor fuel efficiency. They started to become
popular with kit car builders, hot rodders and in light aircraft because of their
light weight, compact size, and tuning potential stemming from their
inherently high power-to-weight ratio - as is true to all Wankel-type engine

The Mazda RX-8 was a sports car manufactured by Mazda Motor

Corporation. It first appeared in 2001 at the North American International
Auto Show. It is the successor to the RX-7 and, like its predecessors in the RX
range, it is powered by a Wankel engine. The RX-8 began North American
sales in the 2004 model year.
Mazda announced on August 23, 2011, that RX-8 will be discontinued from
production citing the 2011 model as the last line of production. The RX-8 was
removed from the European market in 2010 after the car failed to meet
emissions standards.

Testimony of a Mazda RX owner

My twin turbo 1.3L 2 rotor wankel rotary engine produces about 350 whp
(measured at the wheels). Car companies' hp numbers are measured at the
flywheel and are about 15-20% greater due to frictional losses through the
tranmission and such. This would put my car at ~400 hp. The engine
readlines at 9,000 rpm, has full boost at ~3,000 rpm, will accelerate my car

from 0-60 mph in roughly 4.5 seconds and will complete the 1/4 mile in
roughly 12.5 seconds, and has a top speed of around 180 mph. All of these
astonishing straight line figures are nothing compared to the nimble handling
of this 2,800 lb Japanese sports car. So despite all of these amazing stats
produced by my car, how come the rotary engine isn't more commonly used?
Possibly because I get 14 mpg on the interstate.


The Wankel Rotary Engine is a very interesting and well thought out
engine. There is a lot of history behind it and also some very interesting
facts about it. It has many advantages as well as many disadvantages. I
think that this engine could become more popular because of its reliability
and simplicity. I think that I would think about buying one of these engines
because of the performance as well as the efficiency. The Wankel Rotary
engine is going to nothing but become more popular and become even more

ReferencesA Review of Heavy-Fueled Rotary Engine Combustion

Technologies by Chol-Bum M. Kweon
Rotary Engines Illustrated.12 October, 2005
Encyclopedia of the Wankel Rotary Engine. 12 October, 2005

How stuff Works.12 October, 2005
Mazda Rotary engines. 12 October, 2005
Citroenet of the Wankel Rotary Engine. 12 October, 2005