Exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) is a NOx (nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide) reduction technique used in most gasoline and diesel engines.
EGR works by recirculating a portion of an engine’s exhaust gas back to the engine cylinders. Intermixing the incoming air with recirculated exhaust gas dilutes the mix with inert gas, lowering the peak combustion temperatures and (in diesel engines) reducing the amount of excess oxygen. Because NOx formation progresses much faster at high temperatures, EGR serves to limit the generation of NOx. NOx is primarily formed when a mix of nitrogen and oxygen is subjected to high temperatures.
EGR in Spark-Ignited (SI) Engines
In a typical automotive SI engine, 5 to 15 percent of the exhaust gas is routed back to the intake as EGR (thus comprising 5 to 15 percent of the mixture entering the cylinders). The maximum quantity is limited by the requirement of the mixture to sustain a contiguous flame front during the combustion event; excessive EGR in an SI engine can cause misfires and partial burns. Although EGR does measurably slow combustion, this can largely be compensated for by advancing spark timing. Contrary to popular belief, EGR actually increases the efficiency of gasoline engines via several mechanisms:
Reduced throttling losses. The addition of inert exhaust gas into the intake system means that for a given power output, the throttle plate must be opened further, resulting in increased inlet manifold pressure and reduced throttling losses.
Reduced heat rejection. Lowered peak combustion temperatures not only reduces NOx formation, it also reduces the loss of thermal energy to combustion chamber surfaces, leaving more available for conversion to mechanical work during the expansion stroke.
Reduced chemical dissociation. The lower peak temperatures result in more of the released energy remaining as sensible energy near TDC, rather than being bound up (early in the expansion stroke) in the dissociation of combustion products. This effect is relatively minor compared to the first two.
EGR is typically not employed at high loads because it would reduce peak power output, and it is not employed at idle (low-speed, zero load) because it would cause unstable combustion, resulting in rough idle.
EGR in Diesel Engines
In modern diesel engines, the EGR gas is cooled through a heat exchanger to allow the introduction of a greater mass of recirculated gas. Unlike SI engines, diesels are not limited by the need for a contiguous flame front; furthermore, since diesels always operate with excess air, they benefit from EGR rates as high as 50% (at idle, where there is otherwise a very large amount of excess air).
Since diesel engines are unthrottled, EGR does not lower throttling losses in the way that it does for SI engines (see above). However, exhaust gas (largely carbon dioxide and water vapor) has a higher specific heat than air, and so it still serves to lower peak combustion temperatures; the diesel engine’s efficiency is still improved by reduced heat rejection and dissociation.
Implementation of EGR
Recirculation is usually achieved by piping a route from the exhaust manifold to the inlet manifold, which is called external EGR. A control valve (EGR Valve) within the circuit regulates and times the gas flow. Some engine designs perform EGR by trapping exhaust gas within the cylinder by not fully expelling it during the exhaust stroke, which is called internal EGR. A form of internal EGR is used in the rotary Atkinson cycle engine. EGR in the R.A.C.E. can be utilized with spark-ignition or Diesel enhancing the thermodynamic efficiency of this cycle.
EGR can also be used by using a variable geometry turbocharger (VGT) which uses variable inlet guide vanes to build sufficient backpressure in the exhaust manifold. For EGR to flow, a pressure difference is required across the intake and exhaust manifold and this is created by the VGT.
Other methods that have been experimented with are using a throttle in a turbocharged diesel engine to decrease the intake pressure to initiate EGR flow.
Early EGR systems were relatively unsophisticated, utilizing manifold vacuum as the only input to an on/off EGR valve; reduced performance and/or drivability were common side-effects. However, modern systems utilizing electronic engine control computers, multiple control inputs, and servo-driven EGR valves typically improve performance/efficiency with no impact on drivability. In the past, a meaningful fraction of car owners disconnected their EGR systems. Some still do either because they believe EGR reduces power output, causes a build-up in the intake manifold in diesel engines, or because they feel the environmental intentions of EGR are misguided. Disconnecting an EGR system is usually as simple as unplugging an electrically-operated valve or inserting a ball bearing into the vacuum line in a vacuum-operated EGR valve. In all cases, the EGR system will need to be operating normally in order to pass emissions tests.