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Computer drawing of Otto cycle with p-V plot.

To move an airplane through the air, thrust is generated by some kind of propulsion system. Beginning with the Wright brothers' first flight, many airplanes have used internal combustion engines to turn propellers to generate thrust. Today, most general aviation or private airplanes are powered by internal combustion (IC) engines, much like the engine in your family automobile. When discussing engines, we must consider both the mechanical operation of the machine and the thermodynamic processes that enable the machine to produce useful work. On this page we consider the thermodynamics of a four-stroke IC engine.

To understand how a propulsion system works, we must study the basic thermodynamics of gases. Gases have various properties that we can observe with our senses, including the gas pressure p, temperature T, mass, and volume V that contains the gas. Careful, scientific observation has determined that these variables are related to one another, and the values of these properties determine the state of the gas. A thermodynamic process, such as heating or compressing the gas, changes the values of the state variables in a manner which is described by the laws of thermodynamics. The work done by a gas and the heat transferred to a gas depend on the beginning and ending states of the gas and on the process used to change the state. It is possible to perform a series of processes, in which the state is changed during each process, but the gas eventually returns to its original state. Such a series of processes is called a cycle and forms the basis for understanding engine operation.

On this page we discuss the Otto Thermodynamic Cycle which is used in all internal combustion engines. The figure shows a p-V diagram of the Otto cycle. Using the engine stage numbering system, we begin at the lower left with Stage 1 being the beginning of the intake stroke of the engine. The pressure is near atmospheric pressure and the gas volume is at a minimum. Between Stage 1 and Stage 2 the piston is pulled out of the cylinder with the intake valve open. The pressure remains constant, and the gas volume increases as fuel/air mixture is drawn into the cylinder through the intake valve. Stage 2 begins the compression stroke of the engine with the closing of the intake valve. Between Stage 2 and Stage 3, the piston moves back into the cylinder, the gas volume decreases, and the pressure increases because work is done on the gas by the piston. Stage 3 is the beginning of the combustion of the fuel/air mixture. The combustion occurs very quickly and the volume remains constant. Heat is released during combustion which increases both the temperature and the pressure, according to the equation of state. Stage 4 begins the power stroke of the engine. Between Stage 4 and Stage 5, the piston is driven towards the crankshaft, the volume in increased, and the pressure falls as work is done by the gas on the piston. At Stage 5 the exhaust valve is opened and the residual heat in the gas is exchanged with the surroundings. The volume remains constant and the pressure adjusts back to atmospheric conditions. Stage 6 begins the exhaust stroke of the engine during which the piston moves back into the cylinder, the volume decreases and the pressure remains constant. At the end of the exhaust stroke, conditions have returned to Stage 1 and the process repeats itself.

During the cycle, work is done on the gas by the piston between stages 2 and 3. Work is done by the gas on the piston between stages 4 and 5. The difference between the work done by the gas and the work done on the gas is the area enclosed by the cycle curve and is the work produced by the cycle. The work times the rate of the cycle (cycles per second) is equal to the power produced by the engine.

The area enclosed by the cycle on a p-V diagram is proportional to the work produced by the cycle. On this page we have shown an ideal Otto cycle in which there is no heat entering (or leaving) the gas during the compression and power strokes, no friction losses, and instantaneous burning occurring at constant volume. In reality, the ideal cycle does not occur and there are many losses associated with each process. These losses are normally accounted for by efficiency factors which multiply and modify the ideal result. For a real cycle, the shape of the p-V diagram is similar to the ideal, but the area (work) is always less than the ideal value.


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Editor: Nancy Hall
NASA Official: Nancy Hall
Last Updated: May 13 2021

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