What is the Rotary Engine?

Wankel Engine

The Wankel engine is a type of internal combustion engine using an eccentric rotary design to convert pressure into a rotating motion instead of using reciprocating pistons. Its four-stroke cycle takes place in a space between the inside of an oval-like epitrochoid-shaped housing and a rotor that is similar in shape to a Reuleaux triangle but with sides that are somewhat flatter. The very compact Wankel engine delivers smooth high-rpm power. It is commonly called a rotary engine, though this name applies also to other completely different designs.

The engine was invented by German engineer Felix Wankel. He received his first patent for the engine in 1929, began development in the early 1950s at NSU, completing a working prototype in 1957. NSU then licensed the concept to companies around the world, which have continued to improve the design. It is the only internal combustion engine invented in the twentieth century to go into production.

Thanks to their compact design, Wankel rotary engines have been installed in a variety of vehicles and devices including automobiles, motorcycles, racers, aircraft, go-karts, jet skis, snowmobiles, chain saws, and auxiliary power units.


In 1951, the German engineer Felix Wankel began development of the engine at NSU Motorenwerke AG, where he first conceived his rotary engine in 1954 (DKM 54, Drehkolbenmotor). The KKM 57 (the Wankel rotary engine, Kreiskolbenmotor) was constructed by NSU engineer Hanns Dieter Paschke in 1957 without the knowledge of Felix Wankel, who remarked “you have turned my race horse into a plow mare“. The first working prototype DKM 54 was running on February 1, 1957 at the NSU research and development department Versuchsabteilung TX. It produced 21 horsepower; unlike modern Wankel engines, both the rotor and the housing rotated. In 1960 NSU (the firm the inventor worked for) and the US firm Curtiss-Wright signed an agreement where NSU would concentrate on the development of low and medium powered Wankel engines and Curtiss-Wright would develop high powered Wankel Engines, including aircraft engines of which Curtiss-Wright had decades of experience in the design and production of.

Considerable effort went into designing rotary engines in the 1950s and 1960s. They were of particular interest because they were smooth and quiet running, and because of the reliability resulting from their simplicity. An early problem of buildup of cracks in the epitrochoid surface was solved by installing the spark plugs in a separate metal piece instead of screwing them directly into the block. A later alternative solution to spark plug boss cooling was provided by variable coolant velocity scheme for water-cooled rotaries which has had widespread use and was patented by Curtiss-Wright, with the last-listed for better air-cooled engine spark plug boss cooling. These approaches did not require a high conductivity copper insert but did not preclude the use.

Among the manufacturers signing licensing agreements to develop Wankel engines were Alfa Romeo, American Motors, Citroen, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Porsche, Rolls-Royce, Suzuki, and Toyota. In the United States, in 1959 under license from NSU, Curtiss-Wright pioneered improvements in the basic engine design. In Britain, in the 1960s, Rolls Royce Motor Car Division pioneered a two-stage diesel version of the Wankel engine.

Also in Britain, Norton Motorcycles developed a Wankel rotary engine for motorcycles, based on the Sachs air-cooled Wankel that powered the DKW/Hercules W-2000 motorcycle, which was included in their Commander and F1; Suzuki also made a production motorcycle with a Wankel engine, the RE-5, where they used ferrotic alloy apex seals and an NSU rotor in a successful attempt to prolong the engine’s life. In 1971 and 1972 Arctic Cat produced snowmobiles powered by 303 cc Wankel rotary engines manufactured by Sachs in Germany. Deere & Company designed a version that was capable of using a variety of fuels. The design was proposed as the power source for United States Marine Corps combat vehicles and other equipment in the late 1980s.

Mazda and NSU signed a study contract to develop the Wankel engine in 1961 and competed to bring the first Wankel powered automobile to market. Although Mazda produced an experimental Wankel that year, NSU was first with a Wankel automobile on sale, the sporty NSU Spider in 1964; Mazda countered with a display of two and four rotor Wankel engines at that year’s Tokyo Motor Show. In 1967, NSU began production of a Wankel-engined luxury car, the Ro 80. However, problems with apex seal wear led to frequent engine failure, which led to large warranty costs for NSU, and curtailed further Wankel engine development.

Mazda, however, claimed to have solved the apex seal problem, and was able to run test engines at high speed for 300 hours without failure. After years of development, Mazda’s first Wankel engine car was the 1967 Cosmo 110S. The company followed with a number of Wankel (“rotary” in the company’s terminology) vehicles, including a bus and a pickup truck. Customers often cited the cars’ smoothness of operation. However, Mazda chose a method to comply with hydrocarbon emission standards that, while less expensive to produce, increased fuel consumption, just before a sharp rise in fuel prices. Mazda later abandoned the Wankel in most of their automotive designs, but continued using it in their RX-7 sports car until August 2002 (RX-7 importation for Canada ceased with only the 1993 year being sold. The USA ended with the 1994 model year with remaining unsold stock being carried over as the ‘1995’ year.). The company normally used two-rotor designs, but the 1991 Eunos Cosmo used a twin-turbo three-rotor engine. In 2003, Mazda introduced the Renesis engine with the RX-8. The Renesis engine relocated the ports for exhaust and intake from the periphery of the rotary housing to the sides, allowing for larger overall ports, better airflow, and further power gains. Early Wankel engines had also side intake and exhaust ports, but the concept was abandoned because of carbon buildup in ports and side of rotor. The Renesis engine solved the problem by using a keystone scraper side seal. The Renesis is capable of delivering 238 hp (177 kW) with better fuel economy, reliability, and environmental friendliness than previous Mazda rotary engines, all from a nominal 1.3 L displacement, however this was not enough to keep up with ever more stringent emissions standards. Mazda ceased production of their Wankel engine in 2012 after the engine failed to meet the Euro 5 emission standard.

In 1961, the Soviet research organization of NATI, NAMI and VNIImotoprom started experimental development, and created experimental engines with different technologies.

Soviet automobile manufacturer AvtoVAZ also experimented with the use of Wankel engines in cars but without the benefit of a license. In 1974 they created a special engine design bureau, which in 1978 designed an engine designated as VAZ-311. In 1980, the company started delivering Wankel-powered VAZ-2106s (VAZ-411 engine with two-rotors) and Ladas, mostly to security services, of which about 200 were made. The next models were the VAZ-4132 and VAZ-415. Aviadvigatel, the Soviet aircraft engine design bureau, is known to have produced Wankel engines with electronic injection for aircraft and helicopters, though little specific information has surfaced.

Although many manufacturers licensed the design, including Citroën with their M35 and GS Birotor, using engines produced by Comotor, General Motors, which seems to have concluded that the Wankel engine was slightly more expensive to build than an equivalent reciprocating engine, although claiming having solved the fuel economy issue, but failed in obtaining acceptable exhaust emissions, and Mercedes-Benz which used it for their C111 concept car, only Mazda has produced Wankel engines in large numbers. American Motors (AMC) was so convinced “…that the rotary engine will play an important role as a powerplant for cars and trucks of the future…”, according to Chairman Roy D. Chapin Jr., that the smallest U.S. automaker signed an agreement in February 1973, after a year’s negotiations, to build Wankels for both passenger cars and Jeeps, as well as the right to sell any rotary engines it produces to other companies. The automaker’s President, William Luneburg, did not expect dramatic development through 1980, but Gerald C. Meyers, AMC’s Vice-President of the Product (Engineering) Group, suggested that AMC would be buying the engines from Curtis-Wright before developing its own Wankel engines and predicted a total transition to rotary power by 1984. Plans called for the engine to be used in the AMC Gremlin, but development was pushed back. American Motors designed the unique Pacer around the engine, even though by 1974, AMC had decided to buy the Wankel engines from GM instead of building them itself. However, GM’s engines had not reached production when the Pacer was to hit the showrooms. Part of the demise of this feature was the 1973 oil crisis with rising fuel prices, and also concerns about proposed US emission standards legislation. General Motors did not succeed in having a Wankel engine meeting both the emission requirements and having good fuel economy, so in 1974 the company canceled its development, although GM claimed having solved the fuel economy problem and having obtained engines with a duration above 530’000 miles; unfortunately they just published a few papers on the results of their research. This meant the Pacer had to be reconfigured to house AMC’s venerable AMC Straight-6 engine with rear-wheel drive.


In the Wankel engine, the four strokes of a typical Otto cycle occur in the space between a three-sided symmetric rotor and the inside of a housing. The expansion phase of the Wankel cycle is much longer than that of the Otto cycle. In the basic single-rotor Wankel engine, the oval-like epitrochoid-shaped housing surrounds a rotor which is triangular with bow-shaped flanks (often confused with a Reuleaux triangle, a three-pointed curve of constant width, but with the bulge in the middle of each side a bit more flattened). The theoretical shape of the rotor between the fixed corners is the result of a minimization of the volume of the geometric combustion chamber and a maximization of the compression ratio, respectively. The symmetric curve connecting two arbitrary apexes of the rotor is maximized in the direction of the inner housing shape with the constraint that it not touch the housing at any angle of rotation (an arc is not a solution of this optimization problem).

The central drive shaft, called the eccentric shaft or E-shaft, passes through the center of the rotor and is supported by fixed bearings. The rotors ride on eccentrics (analogous to cranks) integral to the eccentric shaft (analogous to a crankshaft). The rotors both rotate around the eccentrics and make orbital revolutions around the eccentric shaft. Seals at the corners of the rotor seal against the periphery of the housing, dividing it into three moving combustion chambers. The rotation of each rotor on its own axis is caused and controlled by a pair of synchronizing gears A fixed gear mounted on one side of the rotor housing engages a ring gear attached to the rotor and ensures the rotor moves exactly 1/3 turn for each turn of the eccentric shaft. The power output of the engine is not transmitted through the synchronizing gears. The force of gas pressure on the rotor (to a first approximation) goes directly to the center of the eccentric, part of the output shaft.

The best way to visualize the action of the engine in the animation at left is to look not at the rotor itself, but the cavity created between it and the housing. The Wankel engine is actually a variable-volume progressing-cavity system. Thus there are 3 cavities per housing, all repeating the same cycle. Note as well that points A and B on the rotor and e-shaft turn at different speed, point B moves 3 times faster than point A, so that one full orbit of the rotor equates to 3 turns of the e-shaft.

As the rotor rotates and orbitally revolves, each side of the rotor is brought closer to and then away from the wall of the housing, compressing and expanding the combustion chamber like the strokes of a piston in a reciprocating engine. The power vector of the combustion stage goes through the center of the offset lobe.

While a four-stroke piston engine makes one combustion stroke per cylinder for every two rotations of the crankshaft (that is, one-half power stroke per crankshaft rotation per cylinder), each combustion chamber in the Wankel generates one combustion stroke per driveshaft rotation, i.e. one power stroke per rotor orbital revolution and three power strokes per rotor rotation. Thus, power output of a Wankel engine is generally higher than that of a four-stroke piston engine of similar engine displacement in a similar state of tune; and higher than that of a four-stroke piston engine of similar physical dimensions and weight.

Wankel engines also generally have a much higher redline than a reciprocating engine of similar power output. This is in part because the smoothness inherent in circular motion, but especially because they do not have highly stressed parts such as a crankshaft or connecting rods. Eccentric shafts do not have the stress-raising internal corners of crankshafts. The redline of a rotary engine is limited by wear of the synchronizing gears. Hardened steel gears are used for extended operation above 7000 or 8000 rpm. Mazda Wankel engines in auto racing are operated above 10,000 rpm. In aircraft they are used conservatively, up to 6500 or 7500 rpm. However, as gas pressure participates in seal efficiency, running a Wankel engine at high rpm under no load conditions can destroy the engine.

National agencies that tax automobiles according to displacement and regulatory bodies in automobile racing variously consider the Wankel engine to be equivalent to a four-stroke engine of 1.5 to 2 times the displacement; some racing series ban it altogether.


Felix Wankel managed to overcome most of the problems that made previous rotary engines fail by developing a configuration with vane seals that had a tip radius equal to the amount of “oversize” of the rotor housing form, as compared to the theoretical epitrochoid, to minimize radial apex seal motion plus introducing a cylindrical gas-loaded apex pin which abutted all sealing elements to seal around the 3 planes at each rotor apex.

Rotary engines have a thermodynamic problem not found in reciprocating four-stroke engines in that their “cylinder block” operates at steady state, with intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust occurring at fixed housing locations for all “cylinders”. In contrast, reciprocating engines perform these four strokes in one chamber, so that extremes of “freezing” intake and “flaming” exhaust are averaged and shielded by a boundary layer from overheating working parts.

The boundary layer shields and the oil film act as thermal insulation, leading to a low temperature of the lubricating film (max. ~200 °C/400 °F) on a water-cooled Wankel engine. This gives a more constant surface temperature. The temperature around the spark plug is about the same as the temperature in the combustion chamber of a reciprocating engine. With circumferential or axial flow cooling, the temperature difference remains tolerable.

Four-stroke reciprocating engines are less suitable for hydrogen. The hydrogen can misfire on hot parts like the exhaust valve and spark plugs. Another problem concerns the hydrogenate attack on the lubricating film in reciprocating engines. In a Wankel engine, this problem is circumvented by using a ceramic apex seal against a ceramic surface: there is no oil film to suffer hydrogenate attack. The piston shell must be lubricated and cooled with oil. This substantially increases the lubricating oil consumption in a four-stroke hydrogen engine.


Unlike a piston engine, where the cylinder is cooled by the incoming charge after being heated by combustion, Wankel rotor housings are constantly heated on one side and cooled on the other, leading to high local temperatures and unequal thermal expansion. While this places high demands on the materials used, the simplicity of the Wankel makes it easier to use alternative materials like exotic alloys and ceramics. With water cooling in a radial or axial flow direction, with the hot water from the hot bow heating the cold bow, the thermal expansion remains tolerable


Early engine designs had a high incidence of sealing loss, both between the rotor and the housing and also between the various pieces making up the housing. Also, in earlier model Wankel engines carbon particles could become trapped between the seal and the casing, jamming the engine and requiring a partial rebuild. It was common for very early Mazda engines to require rebuilding after 50,000 miles (80,000 km). Further sealing problems arise from the uneven thermal distribution within the housings causing distortion and loss of sealing and compression. This thermal distortion also causes uneven wear between the apex seal and the rotor housing, quite evident on higher mileage engines. The problem is exacerbated when the engine is stressed before reaching operating temperature. However, Mazda Wankel engines have solved these problems. Current engines have nearly 100 seal-related parts.

The problem of clearance for hot rotor apexes passing between the axially closer side housings in the cooler intake lobe areas was dealt with by using an axial rotor pilot, radially inboard of the oils seals plus improved inertia oil cooling of the rotor interior ( C-W patents 3,261,542, C. Jones, 5/8/63, 3,176,915, M. Bentele, C.Jones. A.H. Raye. 7/2/62), and slightly “crowned” apex seals (Different height in the center and in the extremes of seal).

Info by wikipedia.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s