SciTech

Nitrous engines are hot, fast, & furious

Credit: India Price/ Credit: India Price/

From The Fast and the Furious to the myriad racing games presently available, hyper-fast cars are a common sight in today’s media. While the portrayal of such technology may be a bit unrealistic in popular media, the technology isn’t fictional and has quite a few real-world applications.

One of the most common applications of a nitrous engine is to improve a car’s performance by fitting it with a nitrous system. This drastically increases a vehicle’s potential speed by using nitrous oxide to supplement the combustion of fuel in a car’s engine.

Nitrous systems are used in both competitive racing and modulated personal driving.

To understand how exactly nitrous systems work, it helps to be familiar with the workings of an internal combustion engine. The internal combustion engine uses the energy released from the combustion of fuel to do physical work, like make the car’s wheel turn.

At a very basic level, think of an internal combustion engine as a syringe whose plunger rhythmically moves up and down.

The system consists of an ignition chamber or cylinder where the fuel burns, an inlet valve that releases a fuel-air mixture into the chamber, a piston that moves up and down, a sparking plug that ignites the flammable mixture, and an exit valve that expels the products of combustion from the chamber.

First, the piston is drawn out and the inlet valve opens, causing a mixture of fuel and air to fill the chamber. The ratio of fuel to air is especially important for efficient combustion and is maintained by a device called the carburetor. Then, the piston pushes back up, which compresses the mixture and increases its flammability.

The spark plug then sharply “sets fire” (exponentially raises the temperature in a very short time) to the mixture, allowing it to combust, and therefore push the piston back down again. Finally, the exit valve opens, releasing all the products of combustion, which causes the piston to go back up once again. This process repeats over and over again to “power” the car.

Combustion is the primary driving force of a car, so an increase in the efficiency or amount of this combustion would cause more energy to be released.There are two types of nitrous systems: wet and dry. In both systems, nitrous oxide and fuel are fed into the combustion chamber. The difference lies in how these substances are fed: A wet system injects a vaporous mixture of fuel and nitrous oxide into the chamber, while a dry system injects the two separately.

Nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas,” is an excellent producer of oxygen gas, which is essential for combustion. In the chamber, since there is an increase in the amount of oxygen as compared to a regular air-fuel mixture, there is also more space for fuel. Thus, additional fuel and oxygen increase the amount of combustion that takes place, thereby increasing the power delivered by the engine by half a horsepower on average. In this sense, power is the amount of work done in unit time. Essentially, the faster a car is going, the more power, or horsepower, it needs to keep its wheels spinning at that speed.

However, this technology is not all fun and games — there can be quite a few repercussions. First, internal combustion engines heat up due to the high temperature gases inside them, so using a nitrous system simply increases the temperatures even more. This increases the probability that your engine will overheat.

Drivers must only fit their cars with nitrous systems after understanding the mechanical boundaries of their engines. The high temperatures in the engine also increase the possibility of early ignition (i.e., ignition of the mixtures before the sparking plug ignites it). This can do severe damage to the internal systems of a car. Furthermore, insurance companies are more likely to object to the idea of insuring a car with a nitrous system attached to it.

Therefore, while nitrous engines certainly improve a car’s performance, the technology comes with its own risks and benefits that need to be carefully weighed before use.