Not too surprisingly, the equilibrium described is influenced by combustion chamber design-as is the point at which smooth burning gives way to the outright explosions we call detonation. This aspect, too, is widely appreciated, but not widely understood. In truth, most people have very little understanding of the events that follow ignition; events that are highly complex if studied with regard to their chemistry but really quite straightforward taken in less narrow terms. Much of the misunderstanding that exists has been created by the popular press, which insists upon saying that a piston is driven downward on its power stroke by a burning mixture. In reality, the burning of fuel in the cylinder is simply a means of raising the temperature of the working gas (air; actually a mixture of gases) and thereby raising its pressure. This relationship was formulated long ago by Boyle as:
Where, of course, P is pressure and T is temperature. The whole business gets complicated in the internal combustion engine by the changes in the cylinder's contents due to the combination of elements in the working gas with fuel, but it still basically is a case of raising the working gases' temperature and thus raising their pressure, and it is that which pushes the piston down and makes the horsepower. In fact, burning will have been all but completed by the time the piston starts downward on its power stroke.
Here, for anyone who cares, is what happens from the moment of ignition: Several thousandths of an inch of travel before the piston reaches the top of its compression stroke, representing somewhere between 20- and 45-degrees of crank rotation, the trapped air/fuel charge is ignited by the spark plug and burning commences. At first, the process proceeds quite slowly (relative to subsequent crank rotation before TDC). A small bubble of fire expands gently away from the point of ignition between the spark plug's electrode and ground wire, and if all combustion were to continue at this pace it would hardly be completed in time for the following compression stroke. However, this small flame quickly heats the remaining mixture enough to enormously increase the rate at which burning occurs, and after the initial delay, the flame-front accelerates outward from its point of origin with ever-increasing rapidity - sweeping throughout the combustion chamber. And if the engine has been given the proper amount of spark advance, the piston will have just moved up to the top of its stroke as the rapid phase of combustion begins, so that the bulk of the burning is done while the piston is virtually stopped and the mixture compressed to minimum volume. By the time the crankshaft has rotated a few more degrees, and the piston is once again moving downward, the combustion process will have been almost entirely completed.
The preceding is what happens in the normal course of events; combustion does not always occur that neatly. The most common, regrettable combustion irregularity is detonation, the harsh knocking you hear just before an engine seizes, or melts a piston - and the noise you would hear, when running an engine on a dynamometer, as the needle on the scale begins an ominous retreat. Unhappily, the very process by which the mixture in the combustion chamber is re-heated before its actual contact with the flame-front advancing from the spark plug, and rapid combustion thus made possible, is the process that may also lead to the sudden explosion of the combustion chamber's contents that we call detonation. Here's how it happens: It has already been noted that as the flame-front advances, the combustion chamber's remaining unburned mixture is heated, and this heating is caused not only by direct contact with the flame, but also by radiation and the overall pressure rise within the chamber. If the temperature of this remaining mixture is raised to its ignition point, all of it is consumed at the same instant in a single explosion. This explosion creates a shock, due to a fantastically rapid pressure rise, that strikes out against all its surroundings hard enough to make detonation’s characteristic knock - and it is a shock with a force often sufficient to break the spark plug insulator's tip and damage both the piston and bearings. Even so, its worst effect is to force a lot of heat out into the piston, cylinder head and the cylinder walls. These are thus brought to abnormally high temperature, which tends to overheat the next air/fuel charge and make it detonate even more quickly and severely.
Should this detonation continue, it will overheat the engine's upper end to the point where ignition occurs before there is a spark: compression heats the mixture in any case, and when a lot more heat is added from the piston crown, etc., the mixture will be brought to “pre-ignite”. Detonation has a very bad effect on power output; pre-ignition (thought by some to be the same phenomena) is even worse in that regard, but will not long continue unnoticed as it will very rapidly overload the piston - in both the thermal and mechanical sense - beyond the point of failure. Knowing that, you will appreciate that detonation is to be avoided if at all possible. One way to avoid detonation would be to simply hold the compression ratio to some very low number, as they would reduce the pre-combustion temperatures and thereby make detonation unlikely if not impossible. But that method is mostly (the exception I will deal with shortly) too expensive in terms of power-output efficiency. A better method is one employed in most engines today: use of a "squish type combustion chamber, in which the mixture is trapped in a small pocket under the spark plug, and the rest of the cylinder head surface over the bore is made to fit closely against the piston crown when the piston is at top center.
We have England's Harry Ricardo to thank for this type combustion chamber, which he created to cope with conditions that ceased to exist long before most of us were born. During the conflict that wracked Europe just after the turn of this century, there were not only shortages of internal combustion engine fuels, but the fuels available were of very poor quality – and would detonate severely in the side-valve engines of that period unless the engines were operated with a much-retarded spark, or their compression ratios lowered to about 4:1, or both. These measures had a terrible effect on fuel economy, naturally, and the problem led Ricardo to do serious research into the nature of detonation. We now know that the side-valve engine is particularly prone to detonation, as it of necessity has a very long combustion chamber. Ignite a fire at one end, and it will be a long while reaching the far corners of the chamber. In the interval between ignition and the completion of burning there is ample opportunity for the unburned part of the charge to overheat and ignite.
Ricardo solved the problem, once he had determined its nature, by lowering the underside of the cylinder head in that part of the chamber over the piston. Thus, most of the mixture was concentrated right at the ignition source, and would be more likely to burn without detonating. The small part of the mixture caught between the cylinder head's squish band and the piston was still subject to compression heating, but was fairly effectively shielded from radiation and was, moreover, spread in such a thin layer that it would resist ignition from any cause - as it would lose heat into the relatively cool piston and cylinder head too fast to ignite.
That still is the secret of the squish-type cylinder head: It concentrates the main charge in a tight pocket under the spark plug, and spreads the mixture at the cylinder-bore's edges too thinly to be heated to the point of ignition. These “end gases” do not burn with the main charge, and are only partly consumed as the piston moves away from top center and releases them from their cooling contact with the surrounding metal. And right there is the disadvantage that comes with the squish-band cylinder head, for mixture that does not burn is mixture that contributes nothing to power output. Of lesser importance, though only in this context, is that those end-gases contribute heavily to the release of unburned hydrocarbons out the exhaust pipe and into the atmosphere, and for that reason automobile manufacturers are now relying much less heavily on squish-band chambers for combustion control. You may be interested to know, too, that in many cases a non-squish combustion chamber, with its complete utilization of the mixture to offset the power-limiting effects of a necessarily-lower compression ratio, has proven to be best in absolute terms of power and economy. McCulloch, for example, make engines with both squish and non-squish cylinder head configurations - having found that both have their applications.
Our application here, of course, is strongly biased toward maximum horsepower, and that points toward a squish-band head - which is what you will have in most motorcycles in any case. I will warn you, now, that it may be unwise to follow the old-time tuner's habit of increasing an engine's compression ratio as an opening gambit in the quest for better performance. Indeed, before your work is done you may find it necessary to reduce your engine's compression ratio belowthe stock specification. You see, in the final analysis it is not so much compression ratio as combustion chamber pressure that determines the limit - and these are not at all the same things. Your stock engine, with a carburetor size and porting chosen to lend it a smooth idle and easy starting, does a much less effective job of cylinder-filling than will be the case after it has been modified. More important, it will probably have an exhaust system that has more to recommend it as a silencer than as a booster of horsepower. These factors, in combination, make a very great difference between the cylinder pressures at the time of ignition in the stock and modified engine. Even given a certain willingness on your part to use a fairly cold spark plug - changing it frequently - and a further willingness to replace pistons and bearings more often in payment for added power, it may stillbe necessary to stay with the stock specification for compression ratio. Or, as I have said, to lower the engine's compression ratio from the stock condition. This last will be particularly true if you succeed in creating a much better than stock exhaust system.
By and large, you would be well-advised to ignore the whole business of compression ratios in favor of cranking pressures. There is, after all, a big difference between the kinds of numbers you get by performing the traditional calculations to find compression ratio, and what is happening as the engine turns. My experience has been that you can use cranking pressures of 120 psi without worrying much about overheating anything. Maximum power will be obtained at cranking pressures somewhere between 135 and 165 psi. Going higher with compression, in a conventional motorcycle engine, can give a neat boost in low speed torque, but the thermal repercussions of higher cranking pressures will surely limit maximum output. On the other hand, fan-cooled kart engines perform very well at cranking pressures up at 200 psi, and water cooled engines behave much the same.
One of the most undesirable side-effects that comes with too-high compression ratios is an enormous difficulty in getting an engine to "carburet" cleanly. When the compression ratio is too high, you'll find that an engine's mixture-strength requirement has a sharp hump right at its torque peak that no motorcycle carburetor can accommodate. You'll realize, after working with high-output two-stroke engines, that all of them are to some degree liquid-cooled - and that the cooling liquid is gasoline. It is true that an over-rich mixture tends to dampen the combustion process, and reduce power, but here again we find ourselves faced with the necessity for finding a balance between evils: We have overheating to rob power on one side, and we can cool the engine with gasoline, but too much fuel also robs power. The solution is a beggar's choice, in which we try to find the cross-over point between overheating and over-rich mixtures.
In an engine intended purely for road racing, with a torque peak virtually coincidental with its power peak and driving through a very close-ratio transmission (enabling the rider to hold engine-speed within narrow limits), making this beggar's choice is a fairly straight-forward proposition: you play with jetting until the motorcycle runs fast. However, road racing conditions allow you to stay right on the mixture-requirement hump; you don't have to worry about what happens two-thousand revs below the power peak, because that's below what you'll use in a race. Motocross racing is another matter entirely, and an engine with a mixture-curve hump will drive you absolutely mad. Jet a motocross engine so that it doesn't melt a piston every time it pulls hard at its torque peak, and (if its mixture-curve is humped) it will be huffing soot and losing power above and below that speed.
The answer to this problem is to iron out that mixture-requirement hump, because no matter how much work you do with the carburetor, it never will be able to cope with the engine's needs. All the carburetor knows, really, is how much air is moving through its throat, and it adds fuel to the air in proportion to the rate of air-flow; don't expect it to know when the piston is getting hot and respond by heaving in some more fuel. How do you get rid of the hump? You do it mostly by substituting a somewhat less effective expansion chamber: one that gives more nearly the same boost all the way through the speed range you are obliged to use by racing conditions, without any big surges. That will result in a drop in peak power, obviously, but you can compensate for it to a considerable extent with the higher compression ratio you previously were forced to forego in the interest of keeping the piston crown intact when the expansion chamber did its big-boost routine. Again, it is all a matter of finding the balance.
No matter what the compression ratio you ultimately use, it will have been influenced much more than you probably suspect by the combustion chamber configuration, and by certain gross characteristics of the head itself. Over the years, I have seen the fashion in combustion chamber forms swing back and forth, hither and yon, with first hat-section chambers in favor and then trench-type chambers, and torus-type chambers and so on and so forth ad infinitum. I was not, and am not, impressed. Combustion chamber form should be established with an eye toward only a very few special considerations, and these cannot account for even half the chamber shapes I have seen. Listed, though not really in order of importance, these are: surface / volume ratio; spark plug location; thermal loadings; and combustion control. We will consider each of these in turn.
Surface to volume ratio is important because even in the part of the combustion chamber fully exposed to the advancing flame front, there will be a mixture layer adhering to the metal surfaces that does not burn. These layers, like that trapped within the squish band, are cooled by their proximity with the cylinder head, or piston, and simply never will reach ignition temperature. And, like the end-gases from the squish band, they eventually find their way out the exhaust port, having taken no part in the conversion of fuel and air into horsepower. Thus, the best combustion chamber shape - taken strictly from the standpoint of surface/volume ratio - would be a simple spherical segment sweeping in a continuous arc from one side of the cylinder bore to the opposite side. No tricky changes in section, no squish bands, no nothing. And that is, in point of fact, precisely the shape employed in nearly all non-squish cylinder heads.
But if you want to use a true (measured from exhaust-closing) compression ratio much over 6.5:1, on a high-output engine, combustion control beyond that afforded by a non-squish cylinder head will be necessary. Considerable variation is possible, but a good rule to follow is to make the cylinder head's squish band about 50-percent of the cylinder bore area. For example, in a 3-inch bore -which has a total area of 7.07-inches2 the squish band would be wide enough to represent an area of just about 3.5 in2. Assuming that you have centered the combustion chamber proper on the bore axis, then your squish band would be a ring having the same outer diameter as the bore, and an inner diameter of just over 2-inches. The combustion chamber itself, to meet the previously-stated minimum surface/volume requirement, would again be a spherical segment - with a radius that provides the total volume, added with that from the clearance space between piston and squish band, to give the desired compression ratio.
The clearance space between piston and cylinder head must be enough to avoid contact at high engine speeds, yet close enough to keep the mixture held there cooled during the combustion process. This vertical clearance between squish band and piston should not be greater than 0.060-inch, and it is my opinion that the minimum should be only barely enough to prevent contact -usually about 0.015-inch in small engines (with tight bearings and cylinder/rod combinations that do not grow, with heat, disproportionately) and up to about 0.045-inch in big engines.
Some disagreement exists as to the validity of claims that the squish band aids combustion by causing turbulence in the combustion chamber as a result of the piston "squishing" part of the charge between itself and the head. I don't know about that, but I do know that holding squish band clearance to a minimum means that there will be the smallest volume of end-gases escaping the combustion process, and that can be more important than you might think. For example, a 250cc cylinder with a full-stroke compression ratio of 10:1 will pack its entire air/fuel charge into a volume of only 28cc by the time its piston reaches top center. Assuming that it has a 3-inch bore, and a 50-percent squish band with a piston/head clearance of .045-inch, then the volume of the charge hiding in the squish area will be in the order of 2.6cc, or almost 10-percent of the total. That can be reduced to 5-percent merely by closing the squish band's clearance to 0.020-inch - and you'll never find an easier 5-percent horsepower difference. True, the difference measured at the crankshaft might prove to be more like 2-1/2-percent, but the addition of those small percentages can make a very large final difference.
Tests have shown that the best location for the spark plug is, by and large, squarely in the center of the combustion chamber, and with its gap as close to the center of the volume of trapped mixture as possible - which is logical, as that position provides the shortest flame travel in all directions. However, a number of other considerations do intrude. First, the plug gap will necessarily be at the periphery of any partly-spherical chamber, and not at its center, and trying to form a knob in the chamber roof - to move the plug deeper into the mixture volume -will upset the chamber's surface/volume ratio. Secondly, moving the plug too close to the piston seems to cause a local overheating of the piston crown, which can impose an unnecessarily low ceiling on compression ratio.
This last consideration has, in many instances, led development engineers to use combustion chambers with forms that allow the plug to be positioned well away from the piston: modified spheroids; conical sections, etc. Also, chambers with higher roofs (like those shaped as cones) with their spark plugs up at the top and the broader base down at the piston, provide a slightly slower pressure rise as combustion progresses, and are in consequence a bit more kind to bearings. Other switches in plug location may be made in the interest of easing the job of plug replacement: it is difficult to change a plug centered in the cylinder head when the bottom of a fuel tank, or frame tube, is directly overhead.
Fortunately, most engines usually are relatively insensitive to plug location as long as the gap isn't moved too close to the piston. Which raises an interesting point: The common practice of shaving material from the cylinder head's lower surface not only raises the compression ratio, and thus the thermal load on the piston, but it brings the plug gap close to the piston crown -compounding the problem. A better approach to obtaining increases in compression ratio is to purchase a cylinder head developed to do the job properly. Yamaha's GYT-kit heads, for example, provide the right compression boost, have their spark plugs properly located, etc. Other made-for-the-job cylinder heads offer the same fundamental advantage, which is that you get to buy a lot of other people's engineering at a very low cost.
Not all cylinder heads have their spark plugs and combustion chamber pockets centered over the cylinder bore, and there are good reasons for most of the variations in form one sees in the products of the major manufacturers: For instance, piston crown temperatures seldom are even, and while the overall temperature distribution pattern is understandably inclined toward maximums in the center of the crown, circumstance can also lend a bias toward the exhaust port. That bias comes not from any heat-input pattern, but rather from the manner in which the piston crown is cooled- by heat transference into the air/fuel mixture below, and into the piston skirt, from whence it is transferred out into the cylinder walls. Cooling provided by the turbulent crankcase charge is more or less even; the same cannot be said of heat losses into the cylinder, for the temperature gradients around the cylinder's walls are most uneven. The area around the exhaust port is hotter than that back at the intake port, even though the exhaust-side of the cylinder is in most instances the recipient of the direct cooling-air blast. Moreover, the exhaust-port side of the piston skirt is bathed in fire every time the port opens at the end of a power stroke. The overall result is to move the maximum temperature point on the piston crown toward the exhaust port.
Now, when that maximum temperature bias begins to seriously overheat the side of the piston, you are likely to see some severe piston ring problems develop: Too-high temperatures will eventually be a disaster for the ring itself, but more often it will not have a chance to show its displeasure because another disastrous situation will already have developed, with the lubricating oil. Sometimes, if a relatively high ash-content or inadequately de-gummed oil is used, the ring will be glued solidly in its groove by varnish and carbonized oils. More often, the temperatures prevailing in that section of the piston skirt adjacent to the exhaust port will cause a breakdown of the oil film in that area and the piston will seize. And this can happen even though a generous margin of safety still exists all around the rest of the piston skirt. Acommon, and highly sensible solution to this problem is to move the combustion chamber pocket away from the bore axis, toward the back (inlet) side of the cylinder. This measure shrouds more of the piston crown's exhaust side under the squish band - which becomes crescent-shaped, instead of being a symmetrical ring - and reduces heat input there from combustion (the skirt will still be getting plenty of heat when the exhaust port opens) enough to provide a more even distribution of heat around the piston skirt. Then, with piston-skirt temperatures evened-out, a slightly higher compression ratio may be used without incurring seizure, or localized overheating of the piston ring.
There is another solution to the problem that has nothing whatever to do with the cylinder head: you simply add metal to the piston crown, and that, too, will tend to equalize skirt temperatures - but it also makes the piston heavier. Even so, it is a solution much-loved by manufacturers, as adding thickness in the piston costs virtually nothing, while any departure from symmetry in combustion chamber configuration entails multiple machining operations (it being extremely difficult to cast, with sufficient accuracy, the combustion chamber's small volume) and machining-time is expensive.
There may be another reason for employing an asymmetrical combustion chamber, and/or relocating the spark plug from its normal position over the bore axis. In loop-scavenged two-stroke engines, the fresh charge is directed upward, and at, the rear cylinder wall, as it emerges from the transfer ports. Ideally, the mixture streams converge and sweep up and over at the top of the cylinder to clear away exhaust products and push them out the exhaust port, following the rear cylinder wall upward, and then curling back smoothly under the cylinder head. In practice, the scavenging stream tends to be much less ordered in its habits, and the general turbulence can make it leap and dodge all over the place, impinging strongly at one point and only eddying at others. This leads, in some engines, to a reshaping and repositioning of the combustion pocket - the purpose of such changes being to aid scavenging by using the combustion chamber's form to give the scavenging stream direction.
In such cases, the spark plug may also be moved to a position where it will be washed by the mixture stream, which tends to cool the plug between firings, and thus make the engine somewhat less sensitive to plug heat range. Also, as noted before, the plug may be moved away from the combustion chamber center to create a slightly longer path for flame travel, which lowers the rate at which pressure in the cylinder rises during the combustion process and, in some instances, makes for smoother running. To a lesser extent, the same treatment may be used to combat a tendency toward detonation, as the lower pressure-rise rate gives all the pockets of end-gases time to lose their heat into the surrounding metal. This last effect is, of course, better obtained with a conical combustion chamber, rather than by offsetting the plug. Incidentally, moving the spark plug over too close to any edge of the bore is usually poor practice: At times, particularly when starting from cold, the piston ring will scrape oil off the cylinder walls and pitch it up at the cylinder head, and if you place the spark plug in the line of fire, it definitely will show a weakness for oil-fouling.