A carburetor (North American spelling) or carburettor (Commonwealth spelling), is a device that blends air and fuel for an internal combustion engine. It was invented by Karl Benz before 1885 and patented in 1886. It is colloquially called a carb (in North America and the United Kingdom) or carby (chiefly in Australia).
The word carburetor comes from the French carbure meaning 'carbide'. To carburete means to combine with carbon. In fuel chemistry, the term has the more specific meaning of increasing the carbon (and therefore energy) content of a fuel by mixing it with a volatile hydrocarbon.
Carburetors were the usual fuel delivery method for almost all gasoline (petrol)-fuelled engines up until the late 1980s, when fuel injection became the preferred method of automotive fuel delivery. In the US market, the last carbureted car was the 1991 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor equipped with the 351 in³ (5.8 L) engine, and the last carbureted light truck was the 1994 Isuzu. Elsewhere, Lada cars used carburetors until 1996. A majority of motorcycles still utilize carburetors due to lower cost and throttle response problems with early injection set ups, but as of 2005, many new models are now being introduced with fuel injection. Carburetors are still found in small engines and in older or specialized automobiles, such as those designed for stock car racing.
When carburetors are used in aircraft with piston engines, special designs and features are needed to prevent fuel starvation during inverted flight. Later engines used an early form of fuel injection known as a pressure carburetor.
Most carbureted (as opposed to fuel-injected) engines have a single carburetor, though some engines use multiple carburetors. Older engines used updraft carburetors, where the air enters from below the carburetor and exits through the top. This had the advantage of never "flooding" the engine, as any liquid fuel droplets would fall out of the carburetor instead of into the intake manifold; it also lent itself to use of an oil bath air cleaner, where a pool of oil below a mesh element below the carburetor is sucked up into the mesh and the air is drawn through the oil covered mesh; this was an effective system in a time when paper air filters did not exist.
Beginning in the late 1930s, downdraft carburetors were the most popular type for automotive use in the United States. In Europe, the sidedraft carburetors replaced downdraft as free space in the engine bay decreased and the use of the SU-type carburetor (and similar units from other manufacturers) increased. Some small propeller-driven aircraft engines still use the updraft carburetor design, however many use more modern designs such as the Constant Velocity (CV) Bing(TM) carburetor.
Under all engine operating conditions, the carburetor must:
This job would be simple if air and gasoline (petrol) were ideal fluids; in practice, however, their deviations from ideal behavior due to viscosity, fluid drag, inertia, etc. require a great deal of complexity to compensate for exceptionally high or low engine speeds. A carburetor must provide the proper fuel/air mixture across a wide range of ambient temperatures, atmospheric pressures, engine speeds and loads, and centrifugal forces:
In addition, modern carburetors are required to do this while maintaining low rates of exhaust emissions.
To function correctly under all these conditions, most carburetors contain a complex set of mechanisms to support several different operating modes, called circuits.
Fuel is introduced into the air stream through small holes at the narrowest part of the venturi. Fuel flow in response to a particular pressure drop in the venturi is adjusted by means of precisely-calibrated orifices, referred to as jets, in the fuel path.
As the throttle is closed, the airflow through the venturi drops until the lowered pressure is insufficient to maintain this fuel flow, and the idle circuit takes over again, as described above.
Bernoulli's principle, which is caused by the momentum of the fluid, is a dominant effect for large openings and large flow rates, but since fluid flow at small scales and low speeds (low Reynolds number) is dominated by viscosity, Bernoulli's principle is ineffective at idle or slow running and in the very small carburetors of the smallest model engines. Small model engines have flow restrictions ahead of the jets to reduce the pressure enough to suck the fuel into the air flow. Similarly the idle and slow running jets of large carburetors are placed after the throttle valve where the pressure is reduced partly by viscous drag, rather than by Bernoulli's principle. The most common rich mixture device for starting cold engines was the choke, which works on the same principle.
Alternative to employing a power valve, the carburetor may utilize a metering rod or step-up rod system to richen the fuel mixture under high-demand conditions. Such systems were originated by Carter Carburetor in the 50's for the primary two venturis of their four barrel carburetors, and step-up rods were widely used on most 1-, 2-, and 4-barrel Carter carburetors through the end of production in the 1980s. The step-up rods are tapered at the bottom end, which extends into the main metering jets. The tops of the rods are connected to a vacuum piston and/or a mechanical linkage which lifts the rods out of the main jets when the throttle is opened (mechanical linkage) and/or when manifold vacuum drops (vacuum piston). When the step-up rod is lowered into the main jet, it restricts the fuel flow. When the step-up rod is raised out of the jet, more fuel can flow through it. In this manner, the amount of fuel delivered is tailored to the transient demands of the engine. Some 4-barrel carburetors use metering rods only on the primary two venturis, but some use them on both primary and secondary circuits, as in the Rochester Quadrajet.
The accelerator pump is also used to prime the engine with fuel prior to a cold start. Excessive priming, like an improperly-adjusted choke, can cause flooding. This is when too much fuel and not enough air are present to support combustion. For this reason, some carburetors are equipped with an unloader mechanism: The accelerator is held at wide open throttle while the engine is cranked, the unloader holds the choke open and admits extra air, and eventually the excess fuel is cleared out and the engine starts.
To provide the extra fuel, a choke is typically used; this is a device that restricts the flow of air at the entrance to the carburetor, before the venturi. With this restriction in place, extra vacuum is developed in the carburetor barrel, which pulls extra fuel through the main metering system to supplement the fuel being pulled from the idle and off-idle circuits. This provides the rich mixture required to sustain operation at low engine temperatures.
In addition, the choke is connected to a "fast idle cam" or other such device which prevents the throttle from closing fully, which could starve the venturis of vacuum and cause the engine to stall. This also serves as a way to help the engine warm up quickly by idling it at a higher than normal speed. In addition, it increases airflow throughout the intake system which helps to better atomize the cold fuel and smooth out the idle.
In older carbureted cars, the choke was controlled by a cable connected to a pull-knob on the dashboard operated by the driver. In most carbureted cars produced from the mid 1960s onward (mid 1950s in the United States) it is usually automatically controlled by a thermostat employing a bimetallic spring, which is exposed to engine heat. This heat may be transferred to the choke thermostat via simple convection, via engine coolant, or via air heated by the exhaust. More recent designs use the engine heat only indirectly: A sensor detects engine heat and varies electrical current to a small heating element, which acts upon the bimetallic spring to control its tension, thereby controlling the choke. A choke unloader is a linkage arrangement that forces the choke open against its spring when the vehicle's accelerator is moved to the end of its travel. This provision allows a "flooded" engine to be cleared out so that it will start.
Some carburetors do not have a choke but instead use a mixture enrichment circuit, or enrichener. Typically used on small engines, notably motorcycles, enricheners work by opening a secondary fuel circuit below the throttle valves. This circuit works exactly like the idle circuit, and when engaged it simply supplies extra fuel when the throttle is closed.
Classic British motorcycles, with side-draft slide throttle carburetors, used another type of "cold start device", called a "tickler". This is simply a spring-loaded rod that, when depressed, manually pushes the float down and allows excess fuel to fill the float bowl and flood the intake tract. If the "tickler" was held down too long it also flooded the outside of the carburetor and the crankcase below, and was therefore a fire hazard.
Usually, special vent tubes allow air to escape from the chamber as it fills or enter as it empties, maintaining atmospheric pressure within the float chamber; these usually extend into the carburetor throat. Placement of these vent tubes can be somewhat critical to prevent fuel from sloshing out of them into the carburetor, and sometimes they are modified with longer tubing. Note that this leaves the fuel at atmospheric pressure, and therefore it cannot travel into a throat which has been pressurized by a supercharger mounted upstream; in such cases, the entire carburetor must be contained in an airtight pressurized box to operate. This is not necessary in installations where the carburetor is mounted upstream of the supercharger, which is for this reason the more frequent system. However, this results in the supercharger being filled with compressed fuel/air mixture, with a strong tendency to explode should the engine backfire; this type of explosion is frequently seen in drag races, which for safety reasons now incorporate pressure releasing blow-off plates on the intake manifold, breakaway bolts holding the supercharger to the manifold, and shrapnel-catching ballistic nylon blankets surrounding the superchargers.
If the engine must be operated in any orientation (for example a chain saw), a float chamber cannot work. Instead, a diaphragm chamber is used. A flexible diaphragm forms one side of the fuel chamber and is arranged so that as fuel is drawn out into the engine the diaphragm is forced inward by ambient air pressure. The diaphragm is connected to the needle valve and as it moves inward it opens the needle valve to admit more fuel, thus replenishing the fuel as it is consumed. As fuel is replenished the diaphragm moves out due to fuel pressure and a small spring, closing the needle valve. A balanced state is reached which creates a steady fuel reservoir level, which remains constant in any orientation.
While basic carburetors have only one venturi, many carburetors have more than one venturi, or "barrel". Two barrel and four barrel configurations are commonly used to accommodate the higher air flow rate with large engine displacement. Multi-barrel carburetors can have non-identical primary and secondary barrel(s) of different sizes and calibrated to deliver different air/fuel mixtures; they can be actuated by the linkage or by engine vacuum in "progressive" fashion, so that the secondary barrels do not begin to open until the primaries are almost completely open. This is a desirable characteristic which maximizes airflow through the primary barrel(s) at most engine speeds, thereby maximizing the pressure "signal" from the venturis, but reduces the restriction in airflow at high speeds by adding cross-sectional area for greater airflow. These advantages may not be important in high-performance applications where part throttle operation is irrelevant, and the primaries and secondaries may all open at once, for simplicity and reliability; also, V configuration engines, with two cylinder banks fed by a single carburetor, may be configured with two identical barrels, each supplying one cylinder bank. In the widely seen V8 and 4-barrel carburetor combination, there are often two primary and two secondary barrels.
Multiple carburetors can be mounted on a single engine, often with progressive linkages; four two-barrel carburetors were frequently seen on high performance American V8s, and multiple four barrel carburetors are often now seen on very high performance engines. Large numbers of small carburetors have also been used (see photo), though this configuration can limit the maximum air flow through the engine due to the lack of a common plenum; with individual intake tracts, not all cylinders are drawing air at once as the engine's crankshaft rotates.
Ways to check carburetor mixture adjustment include: measuring the carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, and oxygen content of the exhaust using a gas analyzer, or directly viewing the colour of the flame in the combustion chamber through a special glass-bodied spark plug sold under the name "Colortune for this purpose. The flame colour of stoichiometric burning is described as a "bunsen blue", turning to yellow if the mixture is rich and whitish-blue if too lean.
The mixture can also be judged after engine running by the state and color of the spark plugs: black, dry sooty plugs indicate a too rich mixture, white to light gray deposits on the plugs indicate a lean mixture. The correct color should be a brownish gray. See also reading spark plugs.
In the early 1980s, many American-market vehicles used special "feedback" carburetors that could change the base mixture in response to signals from an exhaust gas oxygen sensor. These were mainly used to save costs (since they worked well enough to meet 1980s emissions requirements and were based on existing carburetor designs), but eventually disappeared as falling hardware prices and tighter emissions standards made fuel injection a standard item.
Where multiple carburetors are used the mechanical linkage of their throttles must additionally be adjusted to synchronism for smooth engine running.
While catalytic carburetors were made commercially available in the early 1930s, two major factors limited their widespread public use. First, the addition of additives to commercial gasoline made it unsuitable for use in engines with catalytic carburetors. Tetra-ethyl lead was introduced in 1932 to raise gasoline's resistance to engine knock, thereby permitting the use of higher compression ratios. Second, the economic advantage of using kerosene over gasoline faded in the 1930s, eliminating the catalytic carburetor's primary advantage.