Fuel Metering Devices for Aircraft Reciprocating Engines

Basic principles of operation are discussed here with no attempt being made to give detailed maintenance instructions. For the specific information needed to inspect or maintain a particular installation or unit, consult the manufacturer’s instructions.

The basic requirement of a reciprocating fuel metering system is the same, regardless of the type of system used or the model engine on which the equipment is installed. It must meter fuel proportionately to air to establish the proper fuel/air mixture ratio for the engine at all speeds and altitudes at which the engine may be operated. In the fuel/air mixture curves shown in Figure 1, note that the basic best power and best economy fuel/air mixture requirements for reciprocating engines are approximately the same.

Aircraft reciprocating engines fuel metering
Figure 1. Fuel/air mixture curves

The fuel metering system must atomize and distribute the fuel from the carburetor into the mass airflow. This must be accomplished so that the fuel/air charges going to all cylinders holds equal amounts of fuel. Each one of the engine’s cylinders should receive the same quantity of fuel/air mixture and at the same fuel/air ratio.

Due to the drop in atmospheric pressure as altitude is increased, the density of the air also decreases. A normally-aspirated engine has a fixed amount or volume of air that it can draw in during the intake stroke, therefore less air is drawn into the engine as altitude increases. Less air tends to make carburetors run richer at altitude than at ground level, because of the decreased density of the airflow through the carburetor throat for a given volume of air. Thus, it is necessary that a mixture control be provided to lean the mixture and compensate for this natural enrichment. Some aircraft use carburetors in which the mixture control is operated manually. Other aircraft employ carburetors which automatically lean the carburetor mixture at altitude to maintain the proper fuel/air mixture.

The rich mixture requirements for an aircraft engine are established by running a power curve to determine the fuel/ air mixture for obtaining maximum usable power. This curve is plotted at 100 rpm intervals from idle speed to takeoff speed. [Figure 2] Since it is necessary in the power range to add fuel to the basic fuel/air mixture requirements to keep cylinder-head temperatures in a safe range, the fuel mixture must become gradually richer as powers above cruise are used. [Figure 1] In the power range, the engine runs on a much leaner mixture, as indicated in the curves. However, on the leaner mixture, cylinder-head temperature would exceed the maximum permissible temperatures and detonation would occur.

Aircraft reciprocating engines fuel metering
Figure 2. Power versus fuel/air mixture curve

The best economy setting is established by running a series of curves through the cruise range, as shown in the graph in Figure 3, the low point (auto-lean) in the curve being the fuel/air mixture where the minimum fuel per horsepower is used. In this range the engine operates normally on slightly leaner mixtures and obviously operates on richer mixtures than the low-point mixture. If a mixture leaner than that specified for the engine is used, the leanest cylinder of the engine is apt to backfire because the slower burning rate of the lean mixture results in a continued burning in the cylinder when the next intake stroke starts.

Aircraft reciprocating engines fuel metering
Figure 3. Specific fuel consumption curve

Fuel/Air Mixtures

Gasoline and other liquid fuels do not burn at all unless they are mixed with air. If the mixture is to burn properly within the engine cylinder, the ratio of air to fuel must be kept within a certain range. It would be more accurate to state that the fuel is burned with the oxygen in the air. Seventy-eight percent of air by volume is nitrogen, which is inert and does participate in the combustion process, and 21 percent is oxygen. Heat is generated by burning the mixture of gasoline and oxygen. Nitrogen and gaseous byproducts of combustion absorb this heat energy and turn it into power by expansion. The mixture proportion of fuel and air by weight is of extreme importance to engine performance. The characteristics of a given mixture can be measured in terms of flame speed and combustion temperature.

The composition of the fuel/air mixture is described by the mixture ratio. For example, a mixture with a ratio of 12 to 1 (12:1) is made up of 12 pounds of air and 1 pound of fuel. The ratio is expressed in weight because the volume of air varies greatly with temperature and pressure. The mixture ratio can also be expressed as a decimal. Thus, a fuel/air ratio of 12:1 and a fuel/air ratio of 0.083 describe the same mixture ratio. Mixtures of air and gasoline as rich as 8:1 and as lean as 16:1 will burn in an engine cylinder, but beyond these mixtures, either lean or rich blow out could occur. The engine develops maximum power with a mixture of approximately 12 parts of air and 1 part of gasoline by weight.

From a chemist’s point of view, the perfect mixture for combustion of fuel and air would be 0.067 pounds of fuel to 1 pound of air (mixture ratio of 15:1). The scientist calls this chemically correct combination a stoichiometric mixture (pronounced stoy-key-o-metric). With this mixture (given sufficient time and turbulence), all the fuel and all the oxygen in the air is completely used in the combustion process. The stoichiometric mixture produces the highest combustion temperatures because the proportion of heat released to a mass of charge (fuel and air) is the greatest. If more fuel is added to the same quantity of air charge than the amount giving a chemically perfect mixture, changes of power and temperature occur. The combustion gas temperature is lowered as the mixture is enriched, and the power increases until the fuel/air ratio is approximately 0.0725. For mixtures from 0.0725 fuel/air ratio to 0.080 fuel/air ratio, the power remains essentially constant even though the combustion temperature continues downward. Mixtures from 0.0725 fuel/air ratio to 0.080 fuel/air ratio are called best power mixtures, since their use results in the greatest power for a given airflow or manifold pressure. In this fuel/air ratio range, there is no increase in the total heat released, but the weight of nitrogen and combustion products is augmented by the vapor formed with the excess fuel. Thus, the working mass of the charge is increased. In addition, the extra fuel in the charge (over the stoichiometric mixture) speeds up the combustion process, which provides a favorable time factor in converting fuel energy into power.

If the fuel/air ratio is enriched above 0.080, there is loss of power and a reduction in temperature. The cooling effects of excess fuel overtake the favorable factor of increased mass. This reduced temperature and slower rate of burning lead to an increasing loss of combustion efficiency. If, with constant airflow, the mixture is leaned below 0.067, fuel/air ratio power and temperature decrease together. This time, the loss of power is not a liability but an asset. The purpose in leaning is to save fuel. Air is free and available in limitless quantities. The object is to obtain the required power with the least fuel flow. A measure of the economical use of fuel is called specific fuel consumption (SFC), which is the fuel weight in pounds per hour per horsepower.

Reciprocating engine fuel metering formula

By using this ratio, the engine’s use of fuel at various power settings can be compared. When leaning below 0.067 fuel/ air ratio with constant airflow, even though the power diminishes, the cost in fuel to support each horsepower hour (SFC) also is lowered. While the mixture charge is becoming weaker, this loss of strength occurs at a rate lower than that of the reduction of fuel flow. This favorable tendency continues until a mixture strength known as best economy is reached. With this fuel/air ratio, the required hp is developed with the least fuel flow or, to put it another way, the greatest power produced by a given fuel flow. The best economy fuel/air ratio varies somewhat with rpm and other conditions, but for cruise powers on most reciprocating engines, it is sufficiently accurate to define this range of operation as being from 0.060 to 0.065 fuel/air ratios on aircraft where manual leaning is practiced.

Below the best economical mixture strength, power and temperature continue to fall with constant airflow while the SFC increases. As the fuel/air ratio is reduced further, combustion becomes so cool and slow that power for a given manifold pressure gets so low as to be uneconomical. The cooling effect of rich or lean mixtures results from the excess fuel or air over that needed for combustion. Internal cylinder cooling is obtained from unused fuel when fuel/air ratios above 0.067 are used. The same function is performed by excess air when fuel/air ratios below 0.067 are used.

Varying the mixture strength of the charge produces changes in the engine operating condition affecting power, temperature, and spark-timing requirements. The best power fuel/air ratio is desirable when the greatest power from a given airflow is required. The best economy mixture results from obtaining the given power output with the least fuel flow. The fuel/air ratio which gives most efficient operation varies with engine speed and power output.

In the graph showing this variation in fuel/air ratio, note that the mixture is rich at both idling and high-speed operation and is lean through the cruising range. [Figure 1] At idling speed, some air or exhaust gas is drawn into the cylinder through the exhaust port during valve overlap. The mixture that enters the cylinder through the intake port must be rich enough to compensate for this gas or additional air. At cruising power, lean mixtures save fuel and increase the range of the airplane. An engine running near full power requires a rich mixture to prevent overheating and detonation. Since the engine is operated at full power for only short periods, the high fuel consumption is not a serious matter. If an engine is operating on a mixture that is too lean, and adjustments are made to increase the amount of fuel, the power output of the engine increases rapidly at first, then gradually until maximum power is reached. With a further increase in the amount of fuel, the power output drops gradually at first, then more rapidly as the mixture is further enriched.

There are specific instructions concerning mixture ratios for each type of engine under various operating conditions. Failure to follow these instructions results in poor performance and often in damage to the engine. Excessively rich mixtures result in loss of power and waste of fuel. With the engine operating near its maximum output, very lean mixtures cause a loss of power and, under certain conditions, serious overheating. When the engine is operated on a lean mixture, the cylinder head temperature gauge should be watched closely. If the mixture is excessively lean, the engine may backfire through the induction system or stop completely. Backfire results from slow burning of the lean mixture. If the charge is still burning when the intake valve opens, it ignites the fresh mixture and the flame travels back through the combustible mixture in the induction system.