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Cylinder deactivation is a method used to create a variable displacement engine that
is able to supply the full power of a large engine under high load conditions as well
as the fuel economy of a small engine for cruising. Selective firing of engine
cylinders has been used for load control going back at least to the late 19th century
in agricultural engines common at the time regulated by a governor which cut off
cylinders to maintain constant speed.
In automotive applications, engine torque production is demanded by the vehicle
driver in an often highly transient manner. The basic concept of Cylinder Deactivation
technology is to manage torque production in response to the driver command via
selectively engaging or disengaging torque production from engine cylinders rather
than by throttling. The operation of each firing cylinder can be optimized for best
thermal efficiency, subject to possible constraints such as air-fuel mixture ratio, peak
pressures or temperatures (durability), and other factors [1].
Reducing the fuel consumption and related CO2 emission is increasingly important
these days. Typically, internal combustion engines operate more efficiently when the
engine load is high. However in daily life, most of the time the engine is operated in
lower efficiency region. Better matching of real engine load with optimum engine load
can be obtained by applying cylinder deactivation.
In typical light load driving with large displacement engines (e.g. highway cruising),
only about 30 percent of an engines potential power is utilized. Under these
circumstances, the throttle valve is only slightly open and the engine has to work
hard to draw air through it. The result is an inefficient condition known as pumping
loss. In this situation, a partial vacuum occurs between the throttle valve and the
combustion chamberand some of the power that the engine makes is used not to
propel the vehicle forward, but to overcome the drag on the pistons and crank from
fighting to draw air through the small opening and the accompanying vacuum
resistance at the throttle valve. By the time one piston cycle is complete, up to half of
the potential volume of the cylinder has not received a full charge of air.
Deactivating cylinders at light load forces the throttle valve be opened more fully to
create constant power, and allows the engine to breathe easier. Better airflow
reduces drag on the pistons and the associated pumping losses. The result is
improved combustion chamber pressure as the piston approaches top dead center
(TDC) and the spark plug is about to fire. Better combustion chamber pressure
means a more potent and efficient charge of power is unleashed on the pistons as
they thrust downward and rotate the crankshaft. The net result? Improved highway
and cruising fuel mileage.[2]

1. Wilcutts, M., Switkes, J., Shost, M., and Tripathi, A., "Design and Benefits of Dynamic Skip Fire
Strategies for Cylinder Deactivated Engines," SAE Paper 2013-01-0359.
2. Cylinder Deactivation: The Magic of Variable Displacement Engines