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The term backpressure is a wrong term because the pressure is a scalar quantity, It has magnitude but no direction sense associated with it. Even though, the non technical term backpressure is used by some to refer to pressure opposed to the desired flow of fluids in confined places such as a pipe. It is often caused by obstructions or tight bends in a confined space such as an exhaust pipe. In actual practice this type of pressure should be referred to as friction loss and pressure drop.
Because of air resistance and friction between molecules of the fluid, the term backpressure is misleading as the pressure remains and causes flow in the same direction, but the flow is reduced due to resistance. For example, a stock car exhaust system with a particularly high number of twists, bends, turns and right angles could cause lots of backpressure to the gases escaping the car's engine therefore reducing the flow of the gasses.
Backpressure in automotive (four-stroke engine) exhaust
Backpressure 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.
Backpressure 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, backpressure 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.
Backpressure 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).
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