Car engines are built, if we talk about their internal components, almost exclusively in metal. Iron, aluminum and steel are the most widely used metals, due to their resistance to extreme temperatures, thousands and thousands of heat / cold cycles, and their low coefficient of expansion. With everything, plastic is becoming more and more widespread in parts subjected to a lot of heat and friction, and that is why our Russian friends from Garage54 have decided to carry out a curious experiment: Can an engine run with plastic pistons?
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The pistons are the part subjected to the most thermal and mechanical stress. They are the ones that receive the force of the explosion of air and fuel, and they are the ones that move at very high speed in the combustion chambers, thousands of times for every minute that the engine is running. Taking advantage an engine that needed a rebuildOur Russian friends created plastic pistons of identical size to the originals, installed their corresponding rings, and put them back in the engine, to see what would happen.
They underestimated the rapid expansion of plastic when subjected to high temperatures.
Even if the engine would start and run, the expansion of the plastic due to the temperature stopped the engine after a few minutes. Meanwhile, the plastic – a thermoplastic, deformable at high temperatures – was burning and altering. When the engine stopped cranking, an inspection of the pistons showed that its surface had burned and warped, and its rings had melted on the side of the piston due to the high temperature. In short, it became clear why plastic pistons are not made in combustion engines.
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Nevertheless, a thermoset plastic like bakelite or epoxy could have worked. In fact, throughout history, experimental motors built with thermoset plastics have been created, which have not reached production for reasons, mainly, of cost and durability. In any case, the Garage54 video is another fascinating experiment worth beholding.