Aside from propelling an aircraft forward, the power and torque generated by a combustion engine is also used to power many of the systems which support the engine itself. Moreover, there are systems that the engine helps run but does not directly benefit from. As such, in addition to an ignition system, aircraft engines also incorporate a lubrication system, fuel system, electrical system, and pressurization system, all of which are explained below in this brief introduction.
Systems Required to Run the Engine
There are three major systems that are necessary for keeping an internal combustion engine running: the ignition system, lubrication system, and fuel system.
As the primary system which an engine runs, the ignition system is what an engine uses to generate thrust for the airplane. More specifically, the purpose of the ignition system is to provide a continuous supply of high-voltage pulses to the combustion engine’s spark plugs. Located in the cylinders, these spark plugs are used to ignite each spray of fuel-air mixture that enters the combustion chambers, creating an explosive burst of energy that generates movement in the turbine. To ensure that the cylinders fire at the right order, the ignition system must be precise when releasing each high-voltage pulse. Additionally, since ignition is so critical to engine function, this system is kept completely separate from all others.
Since internal combustion engines are made up of many high-speed, high-temperature rotating components that pass one another with low tolerance between them, there must always be a lubrication system in place. In most cases, engine oil is the primary lubricant and it works by providing a thin film between the different engine components. In addition to reducing friction, this protective film also forms a seal between parts and aids in cooling the engine overall. This cooling effect happens as a result of the way in which the oil is continually cycled through the engine to extract and remove heat, additionally keeping the oil at the right viscosity. Because the oil is pumped using an engine-driven mechanical pump, the lubrication system is also dependent on the engine itself to keep it running.
Fuel is required at every stage of flight so it is important that there is a system in place which can consistently feed fuel to the engine without interruption. Most often, fuel is stored in the wings or in a tank behind the cabin, so it must be able to be transferred to the engine at a constant pressure while remaining clean. Therefore, many aircraft use a mechanical pump driven off the engine to pull fuel under pressure from the tank to the engine. Additionally, a secondary manually-selected auxiliary electrical fuel pump can also be employed during critical phases of flight such as take-off and landing.
Auxiliary Systems Run Off the Engine
While the systems mentioned above are required to efficiently run the engine, there are also a few systems which are driven by the rotation of the engine, but are less necessary for keeping it running.
The electrical system of an aircraft generates the power used by avionics, aircraft lights, certain instruments, and in some cases, the flap and undercarriage systems. It is impractical to use batteries alone to provide enough energy for such systems, so modern aircraft make use of an engine-powered alternator that generates electricity through electromagnetic induction.
Not all aircraft are required to have pressurization systems, but those that do often rely on the engine which already creates pressurized air as a byproduct of the combustion process. For this to happen, ambient air is first compressed via the engine compressor, where it is then filtered and cooled before being siphoned into the cabin at just the right amount to bring it to a comfortable pressure.
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