Wankel Engine in Deutsches Museum Munich, Germany

The Wankel rotary engine is a type of internal combustion engine, invented by German engineer Felix Wankel, which uses a rotor instead of reciprocating pistons. This design promises smooth high-rpm power from a compact, lightweight engine;


Wankel engines however are criticized for poor fuel efficiency and exhaust emissions.


Since its introduction in the NSU Motorenwerke AG (NSU) and Mazda cars of the 1960s, the engine has been commonly referred to as the rotary engine, a name which has also been applied to several completely different engine designs.

Although many manufacturers licensed the design, and Mercedes-Benz used it for their C-111 concept car, only Mazda has produced Wankel engines in large numbers. As of 2005, the engine is only available in the Mazda RX-8.

How it works[]

The Wankel cycle. The "A" marks one of the three apexes of the rotor. The "B" marks the eccentric shaft, turning three times for every revolution of the rotor.

In the Wankel engine, the four strokes of a typical Otto cycle engine are arranged sequentially around an oval, unlike the reciprocating motion of a piston engine. In the basic single rotor Wankel engine, a single oval (technically an epitrochoid) housing surrounds a three-sided rotor (a Reuleaux triangle) which turns and moves within the housing. The sides of the rotor seal against the sides of the housing, and the corners of the rotor seal against the inner periphery of the housing, dividing it into three combustion chambers.

As the rotor turns, its motion and the shape of the housing cause each side of the rotor to get closer and farther from the wall of the housing, compressing and expanding combustion chamber similarly to the "strokes" in a reciprocating engine. However, whereas a normal Four-stroke cycle engine produces one combustion stroke per cylinder for every two revolutions (that is, one half power stroke per revolution per cylinder) each combustion chamber of each rotor in the Wankel generates one combustion 'stroke' per revolution (that is, three power strokes per rotor revolution). Since the Wankel output shaft is geared to spin at three times the rotor speed, this becomes one combustion 'stroke' per output shaft revolution per rotor, twice as many as the four-stroke piston engine, and similar to the output of a two stroke cycle engine. Thus, power output of a Wankel engine is generally higher than that of a four-stroke piston engine of similar engine displacement in a similar state of tune, and higher than that of a four-stroke piston engine of similar physical dimensions and weight.


National agencies which tax automobiles according to displacement and regulatory bodies in automobile racing variously consider the Wankel engine to be equivalent to a four-stroke engine of 1.5 to 2 times the displacement; some racing regulatory agencies view it as offering so pronounced an advantage that they ban it altogether.


Wankel engines have several major advantages over reciprocating piston designs, in addition to having higher output for similar displacement and physical size. Wankel engines are considerably simpler and contain far fewer moving parts. For instance, because valving is accomplished by simple ports cut into the walls of the rotor housing, they have no valves or complex valve trains; in addition, since the rotor is geared directly to the output shaft, there is no need for connecting rods, a conventional crankshaft, crankshaft balance weights, etc. The elimination of these parts not only makes a Wankel engine much lighter (typically half that of a conventional engine with equivalent power), but it also completely eliminates the reciprocating mass of a piston engine with its internal strain and inherent vibration due to repetitious acceleration and deceleration, producing not only a smoother flow of power but also the ability to produce more power by running at higher rpm.

In addition to the enhanced reliability due to the elimination of this reciprocating strain on internal parts, the construction of the engine, with an iron rotor within a housing made of aluminum which has greater thermal expansion, ensures that even when grossly overheated the Wankel engine will not seize, as an overheated piston engine is likely to do; this is a substantial safety benefit in aircraft use.

The simplicity of design and smaller size of the Wankel engine also allow for a savings in construction costs, compared to piston engines of comparable power output.

As another advantage, the shape of the Wankel combustion chamber and the turbulence induced by the moving rotor prevent localized hot spots from forming, thereby allowing the use of fuel of very low octane number without preignition or detonation, a particular advantage for Hydrogen cars. This feature also led to a great deal of interest in the Soviet Union, where high octane gasoline was rare.


The design of the Wankel engine requires numerous sliding seals and a housing that is typically built as a sandwich of cast iron and aluminum pieces that expand and contract by different degrees when exposed to heating and cooling cycles in use. These elements led to a very high incidence of loss of sealing, both between the rotor and the housing and also between the various pieces making up the housing. Further engineering work by Mazda brought these problems under control, but the company was then confronted with a sudden global concern over both hydrocarbon emission and a rise in the cost of gasoline, the two most serious drawbacks of the Wankel engine.

Just as the shape of the Wankel combustion chamber prevents preignition, it also leads to incomplete combustion of the air-fuel charge, with the remaining unburned hydrocarbons released into the exhaust. At first, while manufacturers of piston-engine cars were turning to expensive catalytic converters to completely oxidize the unburned hydrocarbons, Mazda was able to avoid this cost by paradoxically enriching the air/fuel mixture enough to produce an exhaust stream which was rich enough in hydrocarbons to actually support complete combustion in a 'thermal reactor' (just an enlarged open chamber in the exhaust manifold) without the need for a catalytic converter, thereby producing a clean exhaust at the cost of some extra fuel consumption.

A related cause for unexpectedly poor fuel economy involves an inherent weakness of the Wankel rotor design when used with conventional fuels. Some studies have indicated that at high speeds, the rate at which the volume of the combustion chamber increases in the moments after ignition actually outpaces the expansion of the burning fuel. The result is that, at high speeds, less useful energy is extracted from the same volume of fuel, as the exhaust has to expend time and energy "catching up" to the rotor before it can accomplish any work.

A typical production two-rotor Wankel engine does not utilise a bearing between the two rotors, allowing a one-piece eccentric shaft to be used. This tradeoff allows for cheaper manufacture at the expense of peak engine rpm, due to eccentric shaft flex. In engines having more than two rotors, or two rotor race engines intended for high-rpm use, a multi-piece eccentric shaft must be used, allowing additional bearings between rotors. While this approach does increase the complexity of the eccentric shaft design, it has been used successfully in some automobile manufacturer's production of three-rotor engine, as well as many low volume production race engines.

Many disadvantages of the Wankel engine have been solved by another manufacturer. The exhaust ports, which in earlier rotaries were located in the rotor housings, were moved to the sides of the combustion chamber. This approach allowed the earlier manufacturer to eliminate overlap between intake and exhaust port openings, while simultaneously increasing exhaust port area. Fuel consumption is now within normal limits of some State emissions requirements.

Aircraft engines[]

The Wankel's superb power-to-weight ratio, reliability, and small frontal area make it particularly well suited to aircraft engine use. There was intense interest in them in this role in the 1950s when the design was first becoming well known, but it was at this same time that almost the entire industry was moving to the jet engine, which many believed would be the only engine in use within a decade. The Wankel suffered from a lack of interest, and when it later became clear that the jet engine was far too expensive for all roles, the general aviation world had already shrunk so much that there was little money for new engine designs. Nevertheless, interest in them for small aircraft has continued.

Aircraft Wankels have made something of a comeback in subsequent years. None of their advantages have been lost in comparison to other engines, and the introduction of better materials has helped the tip-seal (Apex-seal) problem. They are being found increasingly in roles where their compact size and quiet running is important, notably in drones, or UAVs. Many companies and hobbyists adapt Mazda rotary engines to aircraft use; others, including Wankel GmbH itself, manufactured Wankel rotary engines dedicated for the purpose.

Other uses[]

Small Wankel engines are being found increasingly in other roles, such as go-karts, personal water craft and auxiliary power units for aircraft. Some used Wankel engine for model airplane which has been in production essentially unchanged since 1970; even with a large muffler, the entire package weighs only 13.4 ounces (380 grams).

The simplicity of the Wankel makes it ideal for mini, micro, and micro-mini engine designs.

The largest Wankel engine was available in 550 hp (410 kW) one rotor and 1100 hp (820 kW) two rotor versions, displacing 41 liters per rotor with a rotor approximately one meter in diameter. By limiting the engine speed to only 1200 rpm and use of natural gas as fuel was well chosen for the engines to drive pumps on natural gas pipelines.

A limited number of motorcycles powered by Wankel engines were also produced.

Aside from being used for internal combustion engines, the basic Wankel design has also been utilized for air compressors, and superchargers for internal combustion engines, but in these cases, although the design still offers advantages in reliability, the basic advantages of the Wankel in size and weight over the four-stroke internal combustion engine are irrelevant. In a design using a Wankel supercharger on a Wankel engine, the supercharger is twice the size of the engine!

Perhaps the most exotic use of the Wankel design is in the seat belt pretensioner system of the Volkswagen New Beetle. In this car, when deceleration sensors sense a potential crash, small explosive cartridges are triggered electrically and the resulting pressurized gas feeds into tiny Wankel engines which rotate to take up the slack in the seat belt systems, anchoring the driver and passengers firmly in the seat before any collision.

See also[]

  • Quasiturbine


  • cite book | author=Yamaguchi, Jack K.| title=The New Mazda RX-7 and Mazda Rotary Engine Sports Cars | publisher=St. Martin's Press, New York | year=1985 | id=ISBN 0312694563
  • cite web | title=Compendium of Production and Experimental Wankel Engine Data | | url= | accessdate=February 24 | accessyear=2005

External links[]

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