EGR works by recirculating a portion of an engine's exhaust gas back to the engine cylinders. Intermixing the incoming air with recirculated exhaust gas dilutes the mix with inert gas, lowering the adiabatic flame temperature and (in diesel engines) reducing the amount of excess oxygen. The exhaust gas also increases the specific heat capacity of the mix lowering the peak combustion temperature. Because NOx formation progresses much faster at high temperatures, EGR serves to limit the generation of NOx. NOx is primarily formed when a mix of nitrogen and oxygen is subjected to high temperatures.
It also decreases the efficiency of gasoline engines via at least one more mechanism:
EGR is typically not employed at high loads because it would reduce peak power output. This is because it reduces the intake charge density. EGR is also omitted at idle (low-speed, zero load) because it would cause unstable combustion, resulting in rough idle.
Since diesel engines are unthrottled, EGR does not lower throttling losses in the way that it does for SI engines (see above). However, exhaust gas (largely carbon dioxide and water vapor) has a higher specific heat than air, and so it still serves to lower peak combustion temperatures; this aids the diesel engine's efficiency by reduced heat rejection and dissociation. There are trade offs however. Adding EGR to a diesel reduces the specific heat ratio of the combustion gases in the power stroke. This reduces the amount of power that can be extracted by the piston. EGR also tends to reduce the amount of fuel burned in the power stroke. This is evident by the increase in particulate emissions that corresponds to an increase in EGR. Particulate matter (mainly carbon) that is not burned in the power stroke is wasted energy. Stricter regulations on particulate matter(PM) call for further emission controls to be introduced to compensate for the PM emissions introduced by EGR. The most common is particulate filters in the exhaust system that result in reduced fuel efficiency. Since EGR increases the amount of PM that must be dealt with and reduces the exhaust gas temperatures and available oxygen these filters need to function properly to burn off soot, automakers have had to consider injecting fuel and air directly into the exhaust system to keep these filters from plugging up.
EGR can also be used by using a variable geometry turbocharger (VGT) which uses variable inlet guide vanes to build sufficient backpressure in the exhaust manifold. For EGR to flow, a pressure difference is required across the intake and exhaust manifold and this is created by the VGT.
Other methods that have been experimented with are using a throttle in a turbocharged diesel engine to decrease the intake pressure to initiate EGR flow.
Early (1970s) EGR systems were relatively unsophisticated, utilizing manifold vacuum as the only input to an on/off EGR valve; reduced performance and/or drivability were common side effects. Slightly later (mid 1970s to carbureted 1980s) systems included a coolant temperature sensor which didn't enable the EGR system until the engine had achieved normal operating temperature (presumably off the choke and therefore less likely to block the EGR passages with carbon buildups, and a lot less likely to stall due to a cold engine). Many added systems like "EGR timers" to disable EGR for a few seconds after a full-throttle acceleration. Vacuum reservoirs and "vacuum amplifiers" were sometimes used, adding to the maze of vacuum hoses under the hood. All vacuum-operated systems, especially the EGR due to vacuum lines necessarily in close proximity to the hot exhaust manifold, were highly prone to vacuum leaks caused by cracked hoses; a condition that plagued early 1970s EGR-equipped cars with bizarre reliability problems (stalling when warm, stalling when cold, stalling or misfiring under partial throttle, etc.). Hoses in these vehicles should be checked by passing an unlit blowtorch over them: when the engine speeds up, the vacuum leak has been found. Modern systems utilizing electronic engine control computers, multiple control inputs, and servo-driven EGR valves typically improve performance/efficiency with no impact on drivability.
In the past, a fair number of car owners disconnected their EGR systems in an attempt for better performance and some still do. The belief is either EGR reduces power output, causes a build-up in the intake manifold, or believe that the environmental impact of EGR outweighs the NOx emission reductions. Disconnecting an EGR system is usually as simple as unplugging an electrically operated valve or inserting a ball bearing into the vacuum line in a vacuum-operated EGR valve. In most modern engines, disabling the EGR system will cause the computer to display a check engine light. In almost all cases, a disabled EGR system will cause the car to fail an emissions test, and may cause the EGR passages in the cylinder head and intake manifold to become blocked with carbon deposits, necessitating extensive engine disassembly for cleaning.