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New York Times takes notice of Rotary Return
Submitted by SuperUser on Friday, March 29, 2002 - 12:00am

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DETROIT -- When it goes on sale early next year, the Mazda RX-8 will bring the Wankel rotary engine back to America. The last rotary-powered model sold here was also a Mazda, the RX-7, which was last imported in 1995. Rotary engines remain a mechanical oddity in an industry that worships standardization and volume. In the 1960's and 1970's, the rotary engine was viewed, for a time, as the next step in automotive evolution. It came closer to anything yet in displacing the industry's established technology. At the peak of rotary enthusiasm, companies produced rotary-powered motorcycles, outboard boat motors, airplane engines and even lawn mowers. General Motors and American Motors both had plans to use rotary engines in production models plans never realized. The engine's appeal lay in its elegant simplicity. The Wankel rotary, also known as the Wankel after its German inventor, Felix Wankel has only a handful of parts, compared with about 40 pieces in a four-cylinder piston engine. Its central rotor, a triangular piece of metal that revolves in a chamber, does the work of multiple reciprocating pistons. In the four-stroke cycle of a piston engine, valves move up and down to bring air in and extract gases out. But the rotor of a Wankel engine allows the four-stroke process to occur simultaneously. As the rotor turns, it uncovers slots in the housing, admitting air and then letting exhaust out. As a consequence, the rotary engine is lighter and more powerful for its size than even the latest high-compression V-8's. The rotary's main benefit was to take the same combustion process that works so well in a conventional engine and arrange it in a far more compact design. The rotary produces twice the power of a conventional engine of similar size. The rotary motion and the timing of the power pulses run with uncanny smoothness. Today, with billions of dollars committed to research on electric cars, fuel cells and other futuristic technologies, the rotary engine offers a cautionary tale of how a can't-miss technology can fail to live up to expectations. Displacing established technology is never easy, but the Wankel came closer than anything else in the auto industry. By the late 1950's, when a German manufacturer, NSU, first took interest in the rotary engine, there were already more piston engines in the United States than flush toilets. The Wankel was introduced at an auspicious time. Eisenhower was president and tail fins were still growing taller every year. In the air, jet engines were displacing piston engines. Motorists had a seemingly unquenchable thirst for power. NSU's introduction in 1961 of the Prinz, the first production car to use the Wankel engine, captured the imagination of auto engineers worldwide, even though the car proved unreliable. NSU built one more car with rotary power, the Ro80 sedan, before being folded into the fledgling Audi group in the late 1960's. By then, rotary development was under way on three continents under Wankel licenses. The president of General Motors, Edward N. Cole, saw the Wankel design as delivering some of the benefits of gas turbine engines, which were a continuing research program at the company, in a relatively low-cost design. In Japan, Kenichi Yamamoto, president of Toyo Kogyo, which later became Mazda, also saw the rotary's potential and introduced it into several models, including the Cosmo Sport, sold in the United States as the 110 S. In 1969, Mercedes began experimenting with a series of C-111 sports car prototypes that could reach 180 m.p.h. with four-rotor engines; those cars were never brought to production. But the oil crisis of the early 1970's brought rotary-engine development to a near standstill. The rotary had two serious drawbacks: relatively high emissions and poor fuel economy. When Mr. Cole retired, G.M. canceled its production plans. Among automakers, only Mazda persevered. The company's engineers improved the fuel economy, reliability and emission performance, and went on to develop a series of sedans and sports cars with rotary engines, winning races at Le Mans and gaining a loyal following. The new RX-8 rotary produces as much power as its predecessor without the use of turbochargers. Recent research shows the shape of the combustion chamber in a rotary engine is well suited to using pure hydrogen as a fuel. Hydrogen is particularly clean, ending up mainly as water when burned. Mazda has been working for several years on the potential of a hydrogen-fueled rotary engine.

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