But if the engine’s temperature is too low, such as when it’s being started or being operated under very low loads, the mixture doesn’t get hot enough to combust. And at high loads, when the temperature is high, the mixture can combust too early, out of sync with the cycling of the engine, causing a potentially damaging phenomenon called knock. Differences in fuels can also affect precisely when the mixture combusts.
The hybrid system switches between the two forms of combustion. To do this requires changing the way the engine deals with combusted gases. During spark combustion, the gases are forced out through an open valve. In HCCI, the timing of the opening of that valve is changed so that it closes before the gases completely escape, trapping them inside.
John Heywood, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT who was not involved with this work, says that HCCI could eventually provide even greater benefits as researchers find ways to adapt the engine so that they can use it for a wider range of loads. What’s more, it could be used in combination with other gas-saving technologies already available on many vehicles. The extent to which HCCI can be combined with other approaches could determine how widely it’s adopted, suggests Heywood.