Power basics

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Power basics, theory, and application

In my opinion, you can never have too much power, only too little traction.  Here's some of my theories and ideas on the basics of power production.  I'm not an engineer or anything, so take this with stuff a grain of salt:

Power is one of, if not the, primary requirement for a fun car.  Power is the heart and soul of a sports car, the rest can compliment and enhance the experience, but without power you'll never have a sports car.  The muscle cars of the late 60's are an excellent example of the allure of power.  Those cars didn't stop or handle particularly well, but the one attribute they had in excess was power.  In fact, the more power they had, they better they sold and they more valuable they are today.  Some of those cars today are worth well in excess of ten times their purchase amount, the reason is because of the power they produce.

OK, so we agree that power is important, the next question is how do you get power.  It's actually pretty simple, you get it from fuel, in our case; gasoline.  Gasoline contains chemical energy, by burning the gasoline your engine turns that chemical energy into physical energy that is used to move the car.  The more gasoline your burn, the more energy you convert, and theoretically the faster you go.

"Wow, so I can just dump a bunch of fuel into my engine and make all the power I want!"  Not exactly.  What prevents you from simply adding a bunchmore fuel and making an obscene amount of power is oxygen.  In order for the gasoline to burn, it needs oxygen.  All fires and explosions do, the gasoline burning in your engine is no different.  With modern fuel injection you can continue to add fuel with larger injectors and a more powerful fuel pump until you literally fill the engine with gasoline and hydro-lock it.  The challenge then, is not how to supply the engine with gasoline, but how to supply it with oxygen.

The vast majority of engines out there suck in atmospheric air to get oxygen.  In fact, referring to an engine by size (350, 454, 289, etc...) is a measure of how many cubic inches of air the engine will move in one rotation.  So, when someone says they have a '350' in their car, their engine will move 350 cubic inches of air every time it makes one rotation.  At 750 rotations per minute, that engine is moving 1,823 cubic feet of air per minute!  That's a whole lot of air, and that's only at idle.  At 6000 RPM's that same 350 is now moving 14,583 cubic feet of air.  Thats the equivalent of filling an average house (~1800 Sq. Ft.) with air once a minute.  Thats a lot of air!

Engines need to consume such a huge amount of air because most of the normal air out there isn't actually oxygen.  Remember, all the engine cares about is oxygen and fuel, the nitrogen and other gases that comprise the majority of atmospheric air are simply taking up space.  Atmospheric air is about 20% oxygen, so about 80% of what your engine inhales is a waste as far as power production.

Ho do I add more oxygen to make more power?

The most obvious answer is to use a larger engine.  The larger the engine, the more air it moves per rotation.  The more air, the more oxygen, the more gasoline the engine can burn, and the more power it can make.  This is what gives rise to the popular saying, "There is no replacement for displacement."  While it is possible to make as much power with a 4 cylinder as a 454 big block Chevy, producing the power is much easier with the larger engine.  Also, the ultimate power potential of the big block is much higher than the smaller 4 cylinder.  For example, the most powerful automobile 4 cylinder engines that I know of are making close to 2,000 horse power.  The most powerful big block V8 that I know of is making in excess of 8000 horse power.  The reason the big block can make so much more power is because the engine is so much larger than its smaller sibling.

With todays technology almost any size engine can produce more power than could ever be used on the street.  1.6 liter 4 cylinders are making over 500 horse power, turbo charged motorcycles are making over 500 horse power with only a 1300 CC engine.  While I prefer the grunt, sound, and feel of a big V8; smaller engine cars are no joke on todays drag strip or Boulevard.  Modern technology has really made making a lot of power available to everyone, no matter what kind of car they drive.

Instead of using a larger engine, another option is to force atmospheric air into the engine faster than it would normally consume it.  By forcing in air, you are forcing in more oxygen and can now burn more fuel to make more power.  If you have a 350 cubic inch engine, but you are cramming 500 cubic inches of air into it, you should expect the engine to make similar power to a naturally aspirated 500 cubic inch engine.

The 2 most common ways of forcing air into an engine are with turbo chargers and super chargers.  Both of these devices are basically pumps that pump air into the engine.  A super charger is driven by a belt that is run from the crank shaft, where a turbo charger is driven off of exhaust pressure.  Both systems have their pros and cons, but that topic is a little advanced for this article.

The third option is to inject oxygen into the engine.  Oxygen is commonly stored in cylinders for medical use and SCUBA diving, so it stands to reason that all you would need to do is add oxygen from one of these cylinders to your engine, and you could burn more fuel and make more power.  For the most part, that is correct.  However, instead of injecting straight oxygen, you use nitrous oxide.  There are several reasons to combine the nitrogen with the oxygen before injecting it into your engine, but that's some pretty technical information for an entry level discussion.  I assure you though, that the nitrogen is necessary, and that injecting straight oxygen can/will damage your engine.

That's it, that's all there is to making power.  Add oxygen, add fuel, and your set.  The more fuel you burn, the more power you'll make.  Period.