“Ask an Engineer” is hosted by Andrew Bell, a mechanical engineer and car enthusiast. Andrew has his MASc in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Toronto, and has worked on Formula SAE teams, as well as alternative fuel technologies in Denmark and Canada. Andrew’s column will explore engineering topics in the most accessible manner possible.
Even though every other car nowadays seems to offer gasoline direct injection (GDI), Mercedes-Benz was the first to exploit this technology in the 1955 300SL. But it wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that other automakers started to use GDI in mass produced vehicles. GDI promises marginal increases in fuel economy (3% reduction in BSFC ) but its real benefits include reduced cold start/low load emissions and higher power outputs. While the technology offers engineers incredible flexibility from an engine design perspective, it is not without faults. As with any new technology it is important to understand both the positives and negatives before you choose, say a compact car with GDI or one regular fuel injection. If you want to keep your car for a long period of time, the long-term reliability of a GDI engine is an important factor.
The effect of increased percentages of ethanol on injector longevity.
The percentage of ethanol in gasoline at the pumps is steadily increasing. Ethanol has a tendency to increase the corrosion rate of the various metals used in an engine. Add this to the elevated fuel pressure and the fact the injector is directly exposed to in-cylinder combustion events, and you have a recipe for a recall. Furthermore, these injectors are very sensitive to fuel quality due to outrageously tight tolerances. It is very important to use high quality fuels and keep the filters clean.
Higher pressures in general.
GDI requires significantly higher fuel inlet pressures than port injection. This puts a great deal of strain on every piece of the fuel delivery chain. This is not a problem on a new engine. 50,000 miles down the road, and it may be. Manufacturers have been relatively proactive in this department by specifying robust, stainless steel fuel lines and connections. That hasn’t stopped fuel pump recalls from already occurring
Carbon buildup on intake valves.
This is the big problem with most current GDI engines. Due to modern unburned hydrocarbon (UHC) regulations, vapors from the crankcase are usually vented into the intake stream in order to prevent oil droplets from escaping through the exhaust. In a port injection engine, these droplets are ‘washed off’ the neck of the intake valve by a relatively constant stream of gasoline droplets. In a GDI engine, the gasoline doesn’t touch intake side of the valve. As a result, the droplets have a tendency to bake onto the valve and significantly reduce performance. To add to this effect, many advanced GDI engines also include exhaust gas recirculation in order to lean out the combustion mixture and reduce in-cylinder temperatures for certain combustion modes (reducing NOx emissions). Since GDI combustion has the ability to produce far more soot than premixed combustion (port injection), the problem is magnified.
Even more alarming is that these deposits can dislodge and damage other downstream components (turbochargers, catalytic converters, etc.). Manufacturers have added systems to capture these oil droplets and particulates, but no system is 100% effective. As a result, there are many disappointed early adopters with large repair bills. Even diesel engines haven’t been immune to these issues.
The reason these issues have slipped through to production is that they won’t show up in a 500,000 mile torture test. These types of issues will appear after years of short trips (preventing the engine from reaching operating temperature), bad batches of fuel, etc. As we approach the efficiency limits of the internal combustion engine, the engines themselves (and associated support systems) have become more complex. As with the transition from carburetors to electronic fuel injection, there will be some overlap between relatively bombproof port injected engines and the unproven, first-generation GDI engines.