The Combustion Engine Refuses to Die

The internal combustion engine is a throwback. It is a holdover from the age of steam. Its details have been refined, its materials improved and its output multiplied, but the basic mechanism—a piston moving up and down in a cylinder bore—was invented before the phonograph or the lightbulb.

The product of an era of cheap, abundant energy, the combustion engine is also flagrantly wasteful. In a four-stroke gasoline engine—the engine that is most likely in your car, your motorboat, maybe even your generator—a piston is first driven downward, sucking air into the cylinder. Next, the piston makes an upward stroke that compresses the air; then a spark ignites the fuel-air mixture, which explodes, thrusting the piston downward. The final upward stroke pushes out the spent mixture. In that cycle of four piston strokes, today’s gasoline engine typically converts 14 to 30 percent of the energy stored in fuel into useful work. The rest is lost as heat and friction.

Installing that engine in a vehicle compounds the waste. Accessories such as water pumps and air-conditioning compressors draw energy without contributing to forward motion. Rolling resistance of the tires wastes fuel, as does friction in bearings and transmission gears. Aerodynamic drag forces the engine to work hard just

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