The compression ratio is a single number that can be used to predict the performance of any engine, particularly piston engines (but can be used on essentially any internal-combustion engine or external combustion engine as well).
In a piston engine it is the ratio between the volume of the cylinder and combustion chamber when the piston is at the bottom of its stroke, and the volume of the combustion chamber when the piston is at the top of its stroke.
Picture a cylinder with the piston at the bottom of its stroke containing 1000 cc of air. When the piston has moved up to the top of its stroke inside the cylinder, and the remaining volume inside the head or combustion chamber has been reduced to 100 cc, then the compression ratio would be proportionally described as 1000:100, or with fractional reduction, a 10:1 compression ratio.
A high compression ratio is desirable because it allows an engine to extract more mechanical energy from a given mass of air-fuel mixture due to its higher thermal efficiency. High ratios place the available oxygen and fuel molecules into a reduced space along with the adiabatic heat of compression - causing better mixing and evaporation of the fuel droplets. Thus they allow increased power at the moment of ignition and the extraction of more useful work from that power by expanding the hot gas to a greater degree.
Higher compression ratios will however make gasoline engines subject to engine knocking, also known as detonation and this can reduce an engine's efficiency or even physically damage it.
Diesel engines on the other hand operate on the principle of compression ignition, so that a fuel which resists autoignition will cause late ignition which will also lead to engine knock.
If the nominal compression ratio of an engine is given, the pre-ignition cylinder pressure can be estimated using the following relationship:
where is the cylinder pressure at bottom dead center (BDC) which is usually at 1 atm, is the compression ratio, and is the ratio of specific heats of the working fluid, which is about 1.4 for air, and 1.3 for methane-air mixture.
For example, if an engine running on gasoline has a compression ratio is 10:1, the cylinder pressure at top dead center (TDC) is
This figure, however, will also depend on cam (i.e. valve) timing. Generally, cylinder pressure for common automotive designs should at least equal 10 bar, or, roughly estimated in pounds per square inch (psi) as between 15 and 20 times the compression ratio, or in this case between 150 psi and 200 psi, depending on cam timing. Purpose-built racing engines, stationary engines etc. will return figures outside this range.
Factors including late intake valve closure (relatively speaking for camshaft profiles outside of typical production car range, but not necessarily into the realm of competition engines) can produce a misleadingly low figure from this test. Excessive connecting rod clearance, combined with extremely high oil pump output (rare but not impossible) can sling enough oil to coat the cylinder walls with enough oil to facilitate reasonable piston ring seal artificially give a misleadingly high figure, on engines with compromised ring seal.
This can actually be used to some slight advantage. If a compression test does give a low figure, and it has been determined it is not due to intake valve closure/camshaft characteristics, then one can differentiate between the cause being valve/seat seal issues and ring seal by squirting engine oil into the spark plug orifice, in a quantity sufficient to disperse across the piston crown and the circumference of the top ring land, and thereby effect the mentioned seal. If a second compression test is performed shortly thereafter, and the new reading is much higher, it would be the ring seal that is problematic, whereas if the compression test pressure observed remains low, it is a valve sealing (or more rarely head gasket, or breakthrough piston or rarer still cylinder wall damage) issue.
If a problem is suspected then a more comprehensive test using a leak-down tester can locate the leak.
One exception is the experimental Saab Variable Compression engine (SVC). This engine, designed by Saab Automobile, uses a technique that dynamically alters the volume of the combustion chamber (Vc), which, via the above equation, changes the compression ratio (CR).
To alter Vc, the SVC 'lowers' the cylinder head closer to the crankshaft. It does this by replacing the typical one-part engine block with a two-part unit, with the crankshaft in the lower block and the cylinders in the upper portion. The two blocks are hinged together at one side (imagine a book, lying flat on a table, with the front cover held an inch or so above the title page). By pivoting the upper block around the hinge point, the Vc (imagine the air between the front cover of the book and the title page) can be modified. In practice, the SVC adjusts the upper block through a small range of motion, using a hydraulic actuator.
The SVC project was shelved by General Motors when it took over Saab Automobile.
The Atkinson cycle engine was one of the first attempts at variable compression. Since the compression ratio is the ratio between dynamic and static volumes of the combustion chamber the Atkinson cycle's method of increasing the length of the powerstroke compared to the intake stroke ultimately altered the compression ratio at different stages of the cycle.
However: intake valve closure (sealing the cylinder) always takes place after BDC, which causes some of the intake charge to be compressed backwards out of the cylinder by the rising piston at very low speeds; only the percentage of the stroke after intake valve closure is compressed. This "corrected" compression ratio is commonly called the "dynamic compression ratio".
This ratio is higher with more conservative (i.e., earlier, soon after BDC) intake cam timing, and lower with more radical (i.e., later, long after BDC) intake cam timing, but always lower than the static or "nominal" compression ratio.
The actual position of the piston can be determined by trigonometry, using the stroke length and the connecting rod length (measured between centers). The absolute cylinder pressure is the result of an exponent of the dynamic compression ratio. This exponent is a polytropic value for the ratio of variable heats for air and similar gases at the temperatures present. This compensates for the temperature rise caused by compression, as well as heat lost to the cylinder. Under ideal (adiabatic) conditions, the exponent would be 1.4, but a lower value, generally between 1.2 and 1.3 is used, since the amount of heat lost will vary among engines based on design, size and materials used, but provides useful results for purposes of comparison. For example, if the static compression ratio is 10:1, and the dynamic compression ratio is 7.5:1, a useful value for cylinder pressure would be (7.5)^1.3 × atmospheric pressure, or 13.7 bar. (× 14.7 psi at sea level = 201.8 psi. The pressure shown on a gauge would be the absolute pressure less atmospheric pressure, or 187.1 psi.)
The two corrections for dynamic compression ratio affect cylinder pressure in opposite directions, but not in equal strength. An engine with high static compression ratio and late intake valve closure will have a DCR similar to an engine with lower compression but earlier intake valve closure.
The reason for this difference is that compression ratio is defined via the volume reduction,