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In trying to keep up with emissions and fuel efficiency laws, the fuel system used in modern cars
has changed a lot over the years. The 1990 Subaru Justy was the last car sold in the United
States to have a carburetor; the following model year, the Justy had fuel injection. But fuel
injection has been around since the 1950s, and electronic fuel injection was used widely on
European cars starting around 1980. Now, all cars sold in the United States have fuel injection
In this article, we'll learn how the fuel gets into the cylinder of the engine, and what terms like
"multi-port fuel injection" and "throttle body fuel injection" mean.
The Fall of the Carburetor
For most of the existence of the internal combustion engine, the carburetor has been the device
that supplied fuel to the engine. On many other machines, such as lawnmowers and chainsaws,
it still is. But as the automobile evolved, the carburetor got more and more complicated trying to
handle all of the operating requirements. For instance, to handle some of these tasks,
carburetors had five different circuits:
Main circuit - Provides just enough fuel for fuel-efficient cruising
Idle circuit - Provides just enough fuel to keep the engine idling
Accelerator pump - Provides an extra burst of fuel when the accelerator pedal is first
depressed, reducing hesitation before the engine speeds up
Power enrichment circuit - Provides extra fuel when the car is going up a hill or towing a trailer
Choke - Provides extra fuel when the engine is cold so that it will start
In order to meet stricter emissions requirements, catalytic converters were introduced. Very
careful control of the air-to-fuel ratio was required for the catalytic converter to be
effective. Oxygen sensors monitor the amount of oxygen in the exhaust, and the engine
control unit (ECU) uses this information to adjust the air-to-fuel ratio in real-time. This is
called closed loop control -- it was not feasible to achieve this control with carburetors. There
was a brief period of electrically controlled carburetors before fuel injection systems took over,
but these electrical carbs were even more complicated than the purely mechanical ones.
At first, carburetors were replaced with throttle body fuel injection systems (also known
as single point or central fuel injection systems) that incorporated electrically controlled fuel-
injector valves into the throttle body. These were almost a bolt-in replacement for the carburetor,
so the automakers didn't have to make any drastic changes to their engine designs.
Gradually, as new engines were designed, throttle body fuel injection was replaced by multi-
port fuel injection(also known as port, multi-point or sequential fuel injection). These
systems have a fuel injector for each cylinder, usually located so that they spray right at the
intake valve. These systems provide more accurate fuel metering and quicker response.

The Injector
A fuel injector is nothing but an electronically controlled valve. It is supplied with pressurized fuel
by the fuel pump in your car, and it is capable of opening and closing many times per second.

Inside a fuel injector
When the injector is energized, an electromagnet moves a plunger that opens the valve,
allowing the pressurized fuel to squirt out through a tiny nozzle. The nozzle is designed
to atomize the fuel -- to make as fine a mist as possible so that it can burn easily.

A fuel injector firing
The amount of fuel supplied to the engine is determined by the amount of time the fuel injector
stays open. This is called the pulse width, and it is controlled by the ECU.

Fuel injectors mounted in the intake manifold of the
The injectors are mounted in the intake manifold so that they spray fuel directly at the intake
valves. A pipe called the fuel rail supplies pressurized fuel to all of the injectors.

In this picture, you can see three of the injectors. The fuel
rail is the pipe on the left.
In order to provide the right amount of fuel, the engine control unit is equipped with a whole lot
of sensors. Let's take a look at some of them.
Citation & Date
ECU Components
The processor is packaged in a module with hundreds of other components on a multi-layer circuit board.
Some of the other components in the ECU that support the processor are:
Analog-to-digital converters - These devices read the outputs of some of the sensors in the car,
such as the oxygen sensor. The output of an oxygen sensor is an analog voltage, usually between
0 and 1.1 volts (V). The processor only understands digital numbers, so the analog-to-digital
converter changes this voltage into a 10-bit digital number.
High-level digital outputs - On many modern cars, the ECU fires the spark plugs, opens and
closes the fuel injectors and turns the cooling fan on and off. All of these tasks require digital
outputs. A digital output is either on or off -- there is no in-between. For instance, an output for
controlling the cooling fan might provide 12 V and 0.5 amps to the fan relay when it is on, and 0
V when it is off. The digital output itself is like a relay. The tiny amount of power that the
processor can output energizes the transistor in the digital output, allowing it to supply a much
larger amount of power to the cooling fan relay, which in turn provides a still larger amount of
power to the cooling fan.
Digital-to-analog converters - Sometimes the ECU has to provide an analog voltage output to
drive some engine components. Since the processor on the ECU is a digital device, it needs a
component that can convert the digital number into an analog voltage.
Signal conditioners - Sometimes the inputs or outputs need to be adjusted before they are read.
For instance, the analog-to-digital converter that reads the voltage from the oxygen sensor might
be set up to read a 0- to 5-V signal, but the oxygen sensor outputs a 0- to 1.1-V signal. A signal
conditioner is a circuit that adjusts the level of the signals coming in or out. For instance, if we
applied a signal conditioner that multiplied the voltage coming from the oxygen sensor by 4, we'd
get a 0- to 4.4-V signal, which would allow the analog-to-digital converter to read the voltage
more accurately Communication chips - These chips implement the various communications
standards that are used on cars. There are several standards used, but the one that is starting to
dominate in-car communications is called CAN (controller-area networking). This
communication standard allows for communication speeds of up to 500 kilobits per second
(Kbps). That's a lot faster than older standards. This speed is becoming necessary because some
modules communicate data onto the bus hundreds of times per second. The CAN bus
communicates using two wires.
In the next section, we'll take a look at how communication standards have made designing and building
cars easier.
Ignition System Coil

The coil is a simple device -- essentially a high-voltage transformer made up of two coils of wire.
One coil of wire is called the primary coil. Wrapped around it is the secondary coil. The
secondary coil normally has hundreds of times more turns of wire than the primary coil.
Current flows from the battery through the primary winding of the coil.
The primary coil's current can be suddenly disrupted by the breaker points, or by a solid-state
device in an electronic ignition.
If you think the coil looks like an electromagnet, you're right -- but it is also an inductor. The key
to the coil's operation is what happens when the circuit is suddenly broken by the points. The
magnetic field of the primary coil collapses rapidly. The secondary coil is engulfed by a powerful
and changing magnetic field. This field induces a current in the coils -- a very high-voltage
current (up to 100,000 volts) because of the number of coils in the secondary winding. The
secondary coil feeds this voltage to the distributor via a very well insulated, high-voltage wire.
Finally, an ignition system needs a distributor.
Ignition System Timing
The ignition system on your car has to work in perfect concert with the rest of the engine. The
goal is to ignite the fuel at exactly the right time so that the expanding gases can do the
maximum amount of work. If the ignition system fires at the wrong time, power will fall and gas
consumption and emissions can increase.
When the fuel/air mixture in the cylinder burns, the temperature rises and the fuel is converted
to exhaust gas. This transformation causes the pressure in the cylinder to increase dramatically
and forces the piston down.

In order to get the most torque and power from the engine, the goal is to maximize the pressure
in the cylinder during the power stroke. Maximizing pressure will also produce the best engine
efficiency, which translates directly into better mileage. The timing of the spark is critical to
There is a small delay from the time of the spark to the time when the fuel/air mixture is all
burning and the pressure in the cylinder reaches its maximum. If the spark occurs right when
the piston reaches the top of the compression stroke, the piston will have already moved down
part of the way into its power stroke before the gases in the cylinder have reached their highest
To make the best use of the fuel, the spark should occur before the piston reaches the top
of the compression stroke, so by the time the piston starts down into its power stroke the
pressures are high enough to start producing useful work.
Work = Force * Distance
In a cylinder:
Force = Pressure * Area of the piston
Distance = Stroke length
So when we're talking about a cylinder, work = pressure * piston area * stroke length. And
because the length of the stroke and the area of the piston are fixed, the only way to maximize
work is by increasing pressure.
The timing of the spark is important, and the timing can either
be advanced or retarded depending on conditions.
The time that the fuel takes to burn is roughly constant. But the speed of the pistons increases
as the engine speed increases. This means that the faster the engine goes, the earlier the spark
has to occur. This is calledspark advance: The faster the engine speed, the more advance is
Other goals, like minimizing emissions, take priority when maximum power is not required.
For instance, by retarding the spark timing (moving the spark closer to the top of the
compression stroke), maximum cylinder pressures and temperatures can be reduced. Lowering
temperatures helps reduce the formation of nitrogen oxides (NO
), which are a regulated
pollutant. Retarding the timing may also eliminate knocking; some cars that have knock sensors
will do this automatically.
Next we'll go through the components that make the spark.
Spark Plug

The spark plug is in the center of the four valves in each cylinder.
The spark plug is quite simple in theory: It forces electricity to arc across a gap, just like a bolt
of lightning. The electricity must be at a very high voltage in order to travel across the gap and
create a good spark. Voltage at the spark plug can be anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 volts.
The spark plug must have an insulated passageway for this high voltage to travel down to the
electrode, where it can jump the gap and, from there, be conducted into the engine block and
grounded. The plug also has to withstand the extreme heat and pressure inside the cylinder,
and must be designed so that deposits from fuel additives do not build up on the plug.

Spark plugs use a ceramic insert to isolate the high voltage at the electrode, ensuring that the
spark happens at the tip of the electrode and not anywhere else on the plug; this insert does
double-duty by helping to burn off deposits. Ceramic is a fairly poor heat conductor, so the
material gets quite hot during operation. This heat helps to burn off deposits from the electrode.
Some cars require a hot plug. This type of plug is designed with a ceramic insert that has a
smaller contact area with the metal part of the plug. This reduces the heat transfer from the
ceramic, making it run hotter and thus burn away more deposits. Cold plugs are designed with
more contact area, so they run cooler.

The difference between a "hot" and a "cold" spark plug is in the shape of the ceramic tip.
The carmaker will select the right temperature plug for each car. Some cars with high-
performance engines naturally generate more heat, so they need colder plugs. If the spark plug
gets too hot, it could ignite the fuel before the spark fires; so it is important to stick with the right
type of plug for your car.
Next, we'll learn about the coil that generates the high voltages required to create a spark.
Ignition System Distributor
The distributor handles several jobs. Its first job is to distribute the high voltage from the coil to
the correct cylinder. This is done by the cap and rotor. The coil is connected to the rotor, which
spins inside the cap. The rotor spins past a series of contacts, one contact per cylinder. As the
tip of the rotor passes each contact, a high-voltage pulse comes from the coil. The pulse arcs
across the small gap between the rotor and the contact (they don't actually touch) and then
continues down the spark-plug wire to the spark plug on the appropriate cylinder. When you do
a tune-up, one of the things you replace on your engine is the cap and rotor -- these eventually
wear out because of the arcing. Also, the spark-plug wires eventually wear out and lose some of
their electrical insulation. This can be the cause of some very mysterious engine problems.

Older distributors with breaker points have another section in the bottom half of the distributor --
this section does the job of breaking the current to the coil. The ground side of the coil is
connected to the breaker points.

A cam in the center of the distributor pushes a lever connected to one of the points. Whenever
the cam pushes the lever, it opens the points. This causes the coil to suddenly lose its ground,
generating a high-voltage pulse.
The points also control the timing of the spark. They may have a vacuum advance or
a centrifugal advance. These mechanisms advance the timing in proportion to engine load or
engine speed.
Spark timing is so critical to an engine's performance that most cars don't use points. Instead,
they use a sensor that tells the engine control unit (ECU) the exact position of the pistons. The
engine computer then controls a transistor that opens and closes the current to the coil.
In the next section, we'll take a look at an advance in modern ignition systems: the
distributorless ignition.
Citation & Date
Distributorless Ignition

Instead of one main coil, distributorless ignitions have a coil for each spark plug, located
directly on the spark plug itself.
In recent years, you may have heard of cars that need their first tune-up at 100,000 miles. One
of the technologies that enables this long maintenance interval is the distributorless ignition.
The coil in this type of system works the same way as the larger, centrally-located coils. The
engine control unit controls the transistors that break the ground side of the circuit, which
generates the spark. This gives the ECU total control over spark timing.
Systems like these have some substantial advantages. First, there is no distributor, which is an
item that eventually wears out. Also, there are no high-voltage spark-plug wires, which also
wear out. And finally, they allow for more precise control of the spark timing, which can improve
efficiency, emissions and increase the overall power of a car.
How a Multi Point Injection System Works

A multi-point injection system uses multiple injectors to send fuel to car engines.
A fuel injection system mixes fuel and air and injects the mixture into the cylinders of an internal combustion
engine. Multi-point fuel injection systems use more than one injector.
o Multi-point fuel injection systems involve the use of numerous individual
injectors for each cylinder. Multi-point fuel injection systems inject the fuel
mixture into the intake port located upstream of the cylinder's intake valve, as
opposed to single-point fuel injection, which injects fuel at a central point in the
intake manifold.
o Sequential multi-point fuel injection systems use timed injections to coincide
with the intake stroke of each cylinder. Batched sequential multi-point fuel
injection systems inject fuel into groups without synchronizing injections.
Simultaneous fuel injections injects the fuel mixture to all the cylinders at the
same time.
o Benefits of multi-point fuel injection systems include lower gas consumption,
due to the fact that the multi-point system delivers a more precise amount of
gas to each cylinder, reducing wasted gas. This reduction of gas also results in
less harmful emissions