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Back pressure refers to pressure opposed to the desired flow of a fluid in a confined place such as a pipe. It is often caused by obstructions or tight bends in the confinement vessel along which it is moving, such as piping or air vents.
Because it is really resistance, physically friction between molecules, the term back pressure is misleading as the pressure remains and causes flow in the same direction, but the flow is reduced due to resistance. For example, an automotive exhaust muffler with a particularly high number of twists, bends, turns and right angles could be described as having particularly high back pressure.
Back pressure in automotive (four-stroke engine) exhaust
Back pressure caused by the exhaust system (consisting of the exhaust manifold, catalytic converter, muffler and connecting pipes) of an automotive four-stroke engine has a negative effect on engine efficiency resulting in a decrease of power output that must be compensated by increasing fuel consumption.
Back pressure in two-stroke engine exhaust
In a piston-ported two-stroke engine however, the situation is more complicated due to the need to prevent unburned fuel/air mixture from passing right through the cylinders into the exhaust. During the exhaust phase of the cycle, back pressure is even more undesirable than in a four-stroke engine due to the shorter time available for exhaust and the lack of pumping action from the piston to force the exhaust out of the cylinder. However, since the exhaust port necessarily remains open for a time after scavenging is completed, unburned mixture can follow the exhaust out of the cylinder, wasting fuel and increasing pollution, and this can only be prevented if the pressure at the exhaust port is greater than that in the cylinder.
These conflicting requirements are reconciled by constructing the exhaust pipe with diverging and converging conical sections to create pressure wave reflections which travel back up the pipe and are presented at the exhaust port. The exhaust port opens while there is still significant pressure in the cylinder, which drives the initial outflow of exhaust. As the pressure wave from the pulse of exhaust gas travels down the pipe, it encounters a diverging conical section; this causes a wave of negative pressure to be reflected back up the pipe, which arrives at the exhaust port towards the end of the exhaust phase, when the cylinder pressure has fallen to a low level, and helps to draw the remaining exhaust gas out of the cylinder. Further along the exhaust pipe, the exhaust pressure wave encounters a converging conical section, and this reflects a positive pressure wave back up the pipe. This wave is timed to arrive at the exhaust port after scavenging is completed, thereby "plugging" the exhaust port to prevent spillage of fresh charge, and indeed may also push back into the cylinder any charge which has already spilled.
Since the timing of this process is determined mainly by exhaust system geometry, which is extremely difficult to make variable, correct timing and therefore optimum engine efficiency can typically only be achieved over a small part of the engine's range of operating speed.
For an extremely detailed description of these phenomena see Design and Simulation of Two-Stroke Engines (1996), by Prof. Gordon Blair of Queen's University Belfast, pub. SAE International, ISBN 978-1-56091-685-7.
Back pressure in information technology
The term is also used analogously in the field of information technology to describe the build-up of data behind an I/O switch if the buffers are full and incapable of receiving any more data; the transmitting device halts the sending of data packets until the buffers have been emptied and are once more capable of storing information. It also refers to an algorithm for routing data according to congestion gradients (see backpressure routing).
- Muffler at How Stuff Works
- L. Tassiulas and A. Ephremides, "Stability Properties of Constrained Queueing Systems and Scheduling Policies for Maximum Throughput in Multihop Radio Networks, IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control, vol. 37, no. 12, pp. 1936-1948, Dec. 1992.
- L. Georgiadis, M. J. Neely, and L. Tassiulas, "Resource Allocation and Cross-Layer Control in Wireless Networks," Foundations and Trends in Networking, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-149, 2006.