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A piston is a component of reciprocating engines, reciprocating pumps, gas compressors and pneumatic cylinders, among other similar mechanisms. It is the moving component that is contained by a cylinder and is made gas-tight by piston rings. In an engine, its purpose is to transfer force from expanding gas in the cylinder to the crankshaft via a piston rod and/or connecting rod. In a pump, the function is reversed and force is transferred from the crankshaft to the piston for the purpose of compressing or ejecting the fluid in the cylinder. In some engines, the piston also acts as a valve by covering and uncovering ports in the cylinder wall.
Internal combustion engines
The piston of an internal combustion engine is acted upon by the pressure of the expanding combustion gases in the combustion chamber space at the top of the cylinder. This force then acts downwards through the connecting rod and onto the crankshaft. The connecting rod is attached to the piston by a swivelling gudgeon pin (US: wrist pin). This pin is mounted within the piston: unlike the steam engine, there is no piston rod or crosshead (except big two stroke engines).
The pin itself is of hardened steel and is fixed in the piston, but free to move in the connecting rod. A few designs use a 'fully floating' design that is loose in both components. All pins must be prevented from moving sideways and the ends of the pin digging into the cylinder wall, usually by circlips.
Gas sealing is achieved by the use of piston rings. These are a number of narrow iron rings, fitted loosely into grooves in the piston, just below the crown. The rings are split at a point in the rim, allowing them to press against the cylinder with a light spring pressure. Two types of ring are used: the upper rings have solid faces and provide gas sealing; lower rings have narrow edges and a U-shaped profile, to act as oil scrapers. There are many proprietary and detail design features associated with piston rings.
Pistons are cast from aluminium alloys. For better strength and fatigue life, some racing pistons may be forged instead. Early pistons were of cast iron, but there were obvious benefits for engine balancing if a lighter alloy could be used. To produce pistons that could survive engine combustion temperatures, it was necessary to develop new alloys such as Y alloy and Hiduminium, specifically for use as pistons.
A few early gas engines[note 1] had double-acting cylinders, but otherwise effectively all internal combustion engine pistons are single-acting. During World War II, the US submarine Pompano[note 2] was fitted with a prototype of the infamously unreliable H.O.R. double-acting two-stroke diesel engine. Although compact, for use in a cramped submarine, this design of engine was not repeated.
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Trunk pistons are long, relative to their diameter. They act as both piston and also as a cylindrical crosshead. As the connecting rod is angled for part of its rotation, there is also a side force that reacts along the side of the piston against the cylinder wall. A longer piston helps to support this.
Trunk pistons have been a common design of piston since the early days of the reciprocating internal combustion engine. They were used for both petrol and diesel engines, although high speed engines have now adopted the lighter weight slipper piston.
A characteristic of most trunk pistons, particularly for diesel engines, is that they have a groove for an oil ring below the gudgeon pin, not just the rings between the gudgeon pin and crown.
The name 'trunk piston' derives from the 'trunk engine', an early design of marine steam engine. To make these more compact, they avoided the steam engine's usual piston rod and separate crosshead and were instead the first engine design to place the gudgeon pin directly within the piston. Otherwise these trunk engine pistons bore little resemblance to the trunk piston: they were of extremely large diameter and were double-acting. Their 'trunk' was a narrow cylinder placed mounted in the centre of this piston.
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Large slow-speed Diesel engines may require additional support for the side forces on the piston. These engines typically use crosshead pistons. The main piston has a large piston rod extending downwards from the piston to what is effectively a second smaller-diameter piston. The main piston is responsible for gas sealing and carries the piston rings. The smaller piston is purely a mechanical guide. It runs within a small cylinder as a trunk guide and also carries the gudgeon pin.
Because of the additional weight of these pistons, they are not used for high-speed engines.
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A slipper piston is a piston for a petrol engine that has been reduced in size and weight as much as possible. In the extreme case, they are reduced to the piston crown, support for the piston rings, and just enough of the piston skirt remaining to leave two lands so as to stop the piston rocking in the bore. The sides of the piston skirt around the gudgeon pin are reduced away from the cylinder wall. The purpose is mostly to reduce the reciprocating mass, thus making it easier to balance the engine and so permit high speeds. A secondary benefit may be some reduction in friction with the cylinder wall, however as most of this is due to the parts of the piston that are left behind, the benefit is minor.
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Deflector pistons are used in two-stroke engines with crankcase compression, where the gas flow within the cylinder must be carefully directed in order to provide efficient scavenging. With cross scavenging, the transfer (inlet to the cylinder) and exhaust ports are on directly facing sides of the cylinder wall. To prevent the incoming mixture passing straight across from one port to the other, the piston has a raised rib on its crown. This is intended to deflect the incoming mixture upwards, around the combustion chamber. Much effort, and many different designs of piston crown, went into developing improved scavenging. The crowns developed from a simple rib to a large asymmetric bulge, usually with a steep face on the inlet side and a gentle curve on the exhaust. Despite this, cross scavenging was never as effective as hoped. Most engines today use Schnuerle porting instead. This places a pair of transfer ports in the sides of the cylinder and encourages gas flow to rotate around a vertical axis, rather than a horizontal axis.
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Steam engines are usually double-acting (i.e. steam pressure acts alternately on each side of the piston) and the admission and release of steam is controlled by slide valves, piston valves or poppet valves. Consequently, steam engine pistons are nearly always comparatively thin discs: their diameter is several times their thickness. (One exception is the trunk engine piston, shaped more like those in a modern internal-combustion engine.)
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There are two special type of pistons used in air cannons: close tolerance pistons and double pistons. While in close tolerance pistons, O-rings serve as a valve, O-rings are not used in double piston types.
Close-tolerance pistons have a number of disadvantages: They can swell and stick, their properties alter due to atmospheric changes, and they fit tightly in the cylinder with close tolerances. Backlash may suck some of the bin material into the valve which can cause the piston to stick.
Common features of double piston construction: They cannot swell and stick, they fit loosely in the cylinder (no tight tolerances), atmospheric changes do not affect them, and foreign material entering the cylinder doesn't cause sticking.
- Air gun
- Fire piston
- Fruit press
- Hydraulic cylinder
- Slide whistle
- Wankel engine (an internal combustion engine with a rotary 'piston')
- Steam locomotive components
- Rocket engine nozzle effectively forms the piston for rockets
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