Two stroke


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The two-stroke engine is most common in vintage scooters. It differs from the more common four stroke engine by completing the same four processes (intake, compression, combustion, exhaust) in only two strokes of the piston rather than four. This is accomplished by using the beginning of the compression stroke and the end of the combustion stroke to perform the intake and exhaust functions. This allows a power stroke for every revolution of the crank, instead of every second revolution as in a four-stroke engine. For this reason, two-stroke engines provide high power, so they are valued for use in portable, lightweight applications such as chainsaws as well as large-scale industrial applications like locomotives.

A two-stroke engine, in this case with an expansion pipe illustrating the effect of a reflected pressure wave on the fuel charge. This feature is present in most high performance engine designs.



Throughout the 20th century, many small motorised devices such as chainsaws, and outboard motors were usually powered by two-stroke designs. They are popular due to their simple design (and therefore, low cost) and very high power-to-weight ratios. However, varying amounts of engine oil in traditional designs mixes with the air-fuel mixture, which significantly increases the emission of pollutants. For this reason, two-stroke engines have been replaced with four-stroke engines in many applications, though some newer two-stroke designs are as clean as four-strokes.

Two-stroke engines are still commonly used in high-power, handheld applications where light weight is essential, primarily string trimmers and chainsaws. To a lesser extent, these engines may still be used for certain small, portable, or specialized machine applications. These include outboard motors, high-performance, small-capacity motorcycles, mopeds, scooters, snowmobiles, karts, model airplanes (and other model vehicles) and lawnmowers. In the past, two-stroke cycles were experimented with for use in diesel engines, most notably with opposed piston designs, low-speed units such as large marine engines, and V8 engines for trucks and heavy machinery.

Several cars used two-stroke engines in the past, including the Swedish Saab, German manufacturers DKW and Auto-Union. Production of two-stroke cars stopped in the 60s in the West, but East block countries kept producing Syrena in Poland, Trabant and Wartburg in East Germany with two stroke engines until as recently as 1988.

The two-stroke cycle

Two-stroke cycle engines operate in two strokes, instead of the four strokes of the more common Otto cycle.

  1. Power/exhaust: This stroke occurs immediately after the ignition of the charge. The piston is forced down. After a certain point, the top of the piston passes the exhaust port, and most of the pressurized exhaust gases escape. As the piston continues down, it compresses the air/fuel/oil mixture in the crankcase. Once the top of the piston passes the transfer port, the compressed charge enters the cylinder from the crankcase and any remaining exhaust is forced out.
  2. Intake/Compression: The air/fuel/oil mixture has entered the cylinder, and the piston begins to move up. This compresses the charge in the cylinder and draws a vacuum in the crankcase, pulling in more air, fuel, and oil from the carburetor. The compressed charge is ignited by the spark plug, and the cycle begins again.

Different two-stroke design types

Although the principles remain the same, the mechanical details of various two-stroke engines may differ to a large extent and, in order to understand the operation, it is necessary to know which type of design is in question.

The design types of the two-stroke cycle engine vary according to the method of intake of fresh air/fuel mixture from the outside, the method of scavenging the cylinder (exchanging burnt exhaust for fresh mixture) and the method of exhausting the cylinder.

These are the main variations. They can be found alone or in various combinations.

Piston controlled inlet port

Piston port is the simplest of the designs. All functions are controlled solely by the piston covering and uncovering the ports as it moves up and down in the cylinder. A fundamental difference from typical four-stroke engines is that the crankcase is sealed and forms part of the induction process.

Reed inlet valve

This is similar to and almost as simple as the piston port but substitutes a reed type check valve in the intake tract for the piston controlled port. Reed valve engines deliver power over a wider RPM range than the piston port types, making them more useful in many applications, such as dirt bikes, ATVs, and marine outboard engines. Reed valved engines do not lose fresh fuel charge out of the crankcase like piston port engines do.

In common with many two-strokes, reed valve engines can rotate in either direction.

Many early two-stroke engines, particularly small marine types, employed a poppet type check valve for the same purpose, but the inertia of the valve made it suitable for low speed use only.

Rotary inlet valve

The intake tract is opened and closed by a rotating member. In the most commonly used type, it takes the form of a thin disk attached to the crankshaft and spins at crankshaft speed. The fuel/air path through the intake tract is arranged so that it passes through the disk. This disk has a section cut from it and when this cut passes the intake pipe it opens, otherwise it is closed.

Another form of rotary inlet valve used on two-stroke engines employs two cylindrical members with suitable cut-outs arranged to rotate one within the other - the inlet pipe being in communication with the crankcase only when the cut-outs coincide. The crankshaft itself may form one of the members such as was done with the twin cylinder Maytag washing machine engine of the 1930's and 40's and is still used on some model aircraft engines. In yet another embodiment, the crank disc is arranged to be a very close clearance fit in the crankcase and is provided with a cut-out which lines up with an inlet passage in the crankcase wall at the appropriate time. This type was used on the Vespa motor scooter.

The advantage of a rotary valve is that it enables the two-stroke engine's intake timing to be asymmetrical which is not possible with two-stroke piston port type engines. The two-stroke piston port type engine's intake timing opens and closes before and after top dead center at the same crank angle making it symmetrical whereas the rotary valve allows the opening to begin earlier and close earlier.

Rotary valve engines can be tailored to deliver power over a wider RPM range or higher horse power over a narrower RPM range than either piston port or reed valve engine though they are more mechanically complicated than either one of them.


Two-stroke engines often have a simple lubrication system in which a special two-stroke oil is mixed with the fuel, (then known as 'petroil' from "petrol" + "oil") and therefore reaches all moving parts of the engine. Handheld devices using this method of lubrication have the advantage of operating in any orientation since there is no oil reservoir which would be dependent upon gravity for proper function. Depending on the design of the engine system, the oil can be mixed with the fuel manually each time fuel is added, or an oil pump can automatically mix fuel and oil from separate tanks.

The engine uses cylinder port valves which are incompatible with piston ring seals. This causes lubricant from the crank to work its way into the combustion chamber where it burns. Research has been conducted on designs that attempt to reduce the combustion of lubricant. This research could potentially produce an engine having very valuable properties of both high specific-power and low pollution.


With proper design, a two-stroke engine can be arranged to start and run in either direction, and many engines have been built to do so.

Nonpoint source pollution

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, some forms of water recreational activities contribute to nonpoint source pollution or "pollution runoff," and "the old 2 cycle motors have been said to cause more pollution in two hours than a car running for an entire year."[1].

Because fuel leaks through the exhaust port each time a new charge of air/fuel is loaded into the combustion chamber, oil pollution is a problem at many National Parks and outdoor recreation areas that allow four-wheelers, snowmobiles, dirt bikes, and small watercraft.[2]

To address these problems, some organizations have begun to offer biodegradable two-stroke engine oil, and newer models are said to be more efficient.


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