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A hypereutectic piston is an internal combustion engine piston cast using a hypereutectic alloy–that is, a metallic alloy which has a composition beyond the eutectic point. Hypereutectic pistons are made of an aluminum alloy which has much more silicon present than is soluble in aluminum at the operating temperature. Hypereutectic aluminum has a lower coefficient of thermal expansion, which allows engine designers to specify much tighter tolerances.
The most common material used for automotive pistons is aluminum due to its light weight, low cost, and acceptable strength. Although other elements may be present in smaller amounts, the alloying element of concern in aluminum for pistons is silicon. The point at which silicon is fully and exactly soluble in aluminum at operating temperatures is around 12%. Either more or less silicon than this will result in two separate phases in the solidified crystal structure of the metal. This is very common. When significantly more silicon is added to the aluminum than 12%, the properties of the aluminum change in a way that is useful for the purposes of pistons for combustion engines. However, at a blend of 25% silicon, there is a significant reduction of strength in the metal, so hypereutectic pistons commonly use a level of silicon between 16% and 19%. Special moulds, casting, and cooling techniques are required to obtain uniformly dispersed silicon particles throughout the piston material.
Hypereutectic pistons are stronger than more common cast aluminum pistons and used in many high performance applications. They are not as strong as forged pistons, but are much lower cost due to being cast.
Most automotive engines use aluminum pistons that move in an iron cylinder. The average temperature of a piston crown in a gasoline engine during normal operation is typically about 300 °C (570 °F), and the coolant that runs through the engine block is usually regulated at approximately 90 °C (190 °F). Aluminum expands more than iron at this temperature range, so for the piston to fit the cylinder properly when at a normal operating temperature, the piston must have a loose fit when cold.
In the 1970s, increasing concern over exhaust pollution caused the U.S. government to form the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which began writing and enforcing rules that required automobile manufacturers to introduce changes that made their engines run cleaner. By the late 1980s, automobile exhaust pollution had been noticeably improved, but more stringent regulations forced car manufacturers to adopt the use of electronically controlled fuel injection and hypereutectic pistons. Regarding pistons, it was discovered that when an engine was cold during start-up, a small amount of fuel became trapped between the piston rings. As the engine warmed up, the piston expanded and expelled this small amount of fuel which added to the amount of unburnt hydrocarbons in the exhaust.
By adding silicon to the piston's alloy, the piston expansion was dramatically reduced. This allowed engineers to specify reduced clearance between the piston and the cylinder liner. Silicon itself expands less than aluminum. Another benefit of adding silicon is that the piston becomes harder and is less susceptible to scuffing which can occur when a soft aluminum piston is cold-revved in a relatively dry cylinder on start-up or during abnormally high operating temperatures.
The biggest drawback of adding silicon to pistons is that the piston becomes more brittle as the ratio of silicon to aluminum is increased. This makes the piston more susceptible to cracking if the engine experiences pre-ignition or detonation.
Performance replacement alloys
When auto enthusiasts want to increase the power of the engine, they may add some type of forced induction. By compressing more air and fuel into each intake cycle, the power of the engine can be dramatically increased. This also increases the heat and pressure in the cylinder.
The normal temperature of gasoline engine exhaust is approximately 650 °C (1,200 °F). This is also approximately the melting point of most aluminum alloys and it is only the constant influx of ambient air that prevents the piston from deforming and failing. Forced induction increases the operating temperatures while "under boost", and if the excess heat is added faster than the engine can shed it, the elevated cylinder temperatures will cause the air and fuel mix to auto-ignite on the compression stroke before the spark event. This is one type of engine knocking that causes a sudden shockwave and pressure spike, which can result in failure of the piston due to shock-induced surface fatigue, which eats away the surface of the piston.
The "4032" performance piston alloy has a silicon content of approximately 11%. This means that it expands less than a piston with no silicon, but since the silicon is fully alloyed on a molecular level (eutectic), the alloy is less brittle and more flexible than a stock hypereutectic "smog" (low compression) piston. These pistons can survive mild detonation with less damage than stock pistons. 4032 and hypereutectic alloys have a low coefficient of thermal expansion, allowing tighter piston to cylinder bore fit at assembly temperature.
The "2618" performance piston alloy has less than 2% silicon, and could be described as hypo (under) eutectic. This alloy is capable of experiencing the most detonation and abuse while suffering the least amount of damage. Pistons made of this alloy are also typically made thicker and heavier because of their most common applications in commercial diesel engines. Both because of the higher than normal temperatures that these pistons experience in their usual application, and the higher coefficient of thermal expansion due to low-silicon content causing greater thermal growth, these pistons require a larger piston to cylinder bore clearance at assembly temperatures. This leads to a condition known as "piston slap" which is when the piston rocks in the cylinder and it causes an audible tapping noise that continues until the engine has warmed to operational temperatures, expanding the piston and reducing piston to cylinder wall clearance.
Forged versus cast
When a piston is cast, the alloy is heated until liquid, then poured into a mold to create the basic shape. After the alloy cools and solidifies it is removed from the mould and the rough casting is machined to its final shape. For applications which require stronger pistons, a forging process is used.
In the forging process, the rough casting is placed in a die set while it is still hot and semi-solid. A hydraulic press is used to place the rough slug under tremendous pressure. This removes any possible porosity, and also pushes the alloy grains together tighter than can be achieved by simple casting alone. The end result is a much stronger material.
Hypereutectic pistons can be forged, but typically are only cast, because the extra expense of forging is not justified when cast pistons are considered strong enough for stock applications.
Aftermarket performance pistons made from the most common 4032 and 2618 alloys are typically forged.
Compared to both 4032 and 2618 alloy forged pistons, hypereutectic pistons are significantly less strong. Therefore, for performance applications using boost, nitrous oxide, and/or high RPMs, forged pistons (made from either alloy) are preferred. However, hypereutectic pistons experience less thermal expansion than even forged pistons made from low expansion 4032 alloy. For this reason, hypereutectic pistons can run a tighter piston to cylinder clearance than forged pistons. This makes hypereutectic pistons a better choice for stock engines, where longevity is more important than ultimate performance.