How Does a Rotary Engine Work?

Mazda Backs Off on Rotary Engine for SKYACTIV Technology

Mazda has recently indicated that plans to bring the rotary engine back into production are less firm than previously thought. Current Mazda CEO Masamichi Kogai has stated publicly that Mazda would not commit to a rotary-powered model unless the automaker expected it to sell at least 100,000 units. That is a high threshold for any vehicle to reach, particularly one with such a unique powertrain.

That being said, Kogai did not completely rule out the possibility the rotary engine will make reappeare sometime in the future. Despite the obstacles to production, the rotary engine remains an interesting option because it is able to run on a variety of different fuels – gasoline, hydrogen, even kerosene. As drivers increasingly demand better fuel economy, and automakers search for a replacement to conventional gas engines, the technology that underpins the rotary engine could inform a blueprint for the future. Don’t count on seeing a rotary-powered Mazda model in the next few years, but don’t write the engine off as dead either.

In the meantime, Mazda has embraced SKYACTIV technology. While Mazda continues to research and develop technology like the rotary engine, Mazda is working to maximize the performance and efficiency of gasoline and diesel engines. SKYACTIV engines outperform competing engines with more torque and better efficiency.

How Does a Rotary Engine Work?

Mazda Rotary EngineMazda has always been known for forward-thinking concepts, from their style-pushing body designs to their pioneering driver-assistance dashboard technologies. But one of the most significant Mazda innovations is often the most overlooked.

In 1961, the president of Mazda motors first recognized the potential of the rotary engine compared to the widely used piston fired engines that still flood the market today. First designed by a visionary German engineer Felix Wankel who initially thought up the idea as a young man, the rotary engine was a dream that did not reach final development until 41 years later.

Mazda made an early commitment to the promise of the rotary engine, and they have now refined the possibilities over an exciting 40-year period. Mazda is celebrating the anniversary of a technology that continues to develop every year and point the future of automobiles upward.

What Makes the Rotary Engine Different?

The rotary engine is both a bold idea in engine design, and a surprisingly simple concept. A typical internal combustion engine works by containing the explosive force caused by igniting gasoline within each of the engine’s cylinders. This force moves the pistons up and down, which ultimately creates the energy needed to rotate the tires.

A rotary engine takes the same principle, but integrates it into a single system. Rather than having 4, 6, or 8 cylinders in the engine, the power is generated from a single chamber. A triangular rotor spins in a circular loop, pulling fuel and air into the engine and then compressing it so that the propulsive power can be harnessed. In a rotary engine, many of the typical engine’s most essential components are consolidated into one synchronous system.

What is the Advantage of a Rotary Engine?

Mazda RX8What drivers first notice about a vehicle equipped with a rotary engine is the incredible amount of power it puts out in a little package. This technology is capable of producing whopping amounts of horsepower for every liter of displacement. In a recent test of the rotary engine in the Mazda RX8, the results showed a remarkable 178 hp of performance per liter.

The other major advantage of rotary engines is they are unlikely to suffer from major engine failure. Internal combustion systems that rely on pistons have significantly more moving parts, all of which are interdependent and critical for full function. Rotary engines, by contrast, simply lose power if they experience problems. That means they will not leave you stranded on the side of the road.

What is the Future of the Rotary Engine for Mazda?

Mazda RX8Currently, the RX-8 is the only recent Mazda car to feature the rotary engine—it ended production after the 2011 model—and reports about the future of the rotary engine don’t rise above the level of speculation. There are indications, however, that Mazda engineers are still experimenting with the rotary engine and are at least committed to finding new applications for it, if not building a whole model around it.

For instance, Mazda has been experimenting with rotary engines in electric vehicles. The Mazda Demio EV—currently only in the concept phase—is an electric version of the Mazda2 that features a miniaturized rotary engine hooked to a generator and gas tank. The rotary engine extends the range of the vehicle and drastically reduces the weight of the car for greater efficiency.

There have also been rumors that Mazda is developing a rotary-powered sports coupe that could hit the market in 2017. The model would combine rotary technology with Mazda’s popular SKYACTIV platform and take cues from the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata. While some details have leaked out, none has been confirmed by Mazda, calling into question whether this model is a reality or just a wish. However, in a tweet sent out from the Mazda R&D department, engineers signaled that they were still experimenting with rotary technology.

What is clear is that throughout its history, Mazda has shown a commitment to the rotary engine that no other automaker has matched. If any company can push this powertrain technology into the future and reintroduce it to a new generation of drivers, Mazda is the one to do it. To learn more about rotary engines and Mazda’s latest revolution— SKYACTIV technology—don’t hesitate to contact Cox Mazda.