Fuel Fundamentals

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Fuel Fundamentals


From ΞSourceΞ.



Fuel Sources: Petrol (Fossil), Bio



Atmosphere (Air) =
Nitrogen (N2 = 78.1%) + Oxygen (O2 = 20.95%) + Carbon Dioxide (CO2 = 0.04%)
+ Other Elements in Trace amounts = 0.01% (by volume)

Atmosphere Wikipedia.

Nitrogen Wikipedia.

Oxygen Wikipedia.

Carbon Dioxide Wikipedia.

Hydrogen Wikipedia.

Carbon Wikipedia.

Hydrocarbon Wikipedia.

Water Wikipedia.

A word about mixture: When a hydrocarbon (HXCX) fuel such as gasoline or diesel is ignited in the presence of oxygen (O2), the following chemical reaction ensues and energy is released.

XHxCx + XO2 = XH2O + XCO2

When the molecules of fuel match the amount of oxygen, the combustion gases generated by the chemical reaction are “Water” (H2O) in the form of high temperature steam (the main thing that pushes the piston) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) (the same stuff we exhale). When the fuel to air ratio matches, it is called the “Perfect Mixture“.

Side Note: Boats equipped with “wet” exhaust systems inject raw water into the exhaust gasses at the mixing elbow. A well designed elbow will cool the hot exhaust gases coming out of the engine at nearly 1000°F down to under 200°F within inches so the exhaust hoses are not burn. This sudden chilling condenses the steam into water, so what comes out the exhaust system is mostly “Liquid Water” and “Gaseous Carbon Dioxide”.

In the case of a lean mixture, there is not enough fuel to match the oxygen available during combustion resulting in the following chemical reaction:

HxCx + O2 = H2O + CO2 + O2

Note the extra oxygen (O2) left over after combustion.

The main consequence of running a diesel engine on a lean mixture is the loss of engine efficiency. Unfortunately, as the mixture becomes leaner, the combustion temperature falls, and a much more serous consequence results:

HxCx + O2 = H2O + CO2 + O2 + HxCx + C2

Now note the unburned hydrocarbons (HXCX emissions) and carbon (C2 particulates) that have resulted from the combustion temperature not being high enough to burn them.

The excess carbon can coat fuel injector tips, disrupting proper spray patterns and causing injector misfire. The carbon can coat internal surfaces such as combustion chambers, pistons, rings, and intake and exhaust valves, preventing proper cooling which can ultimately cause their destruction. Carbonizing can significantly increase valve stem, valve guide, piston, ring and cylinder wear. And carbon can blow-by the rings and contaminate engine oil.

This is why it is detrimental to the engine and the environment to run a diesel engine at lower power and especially at idle.

In the case of a rich mixture, there is too much fuel for the oxygen available during combustion resulting in the following chemical reaction:

HxCx + O2 = H2O + CO2 + HxCx + C2

This is similar to the lean mixture, but the unburned hydrocarbons (HXCX) and carbon (C2) particulates are much more plentiful due to the lack of oxygen (O2) to burn them and therefore much more serious. Deadly Carbon Monoxide (CO) can also be a byproduct of a rich mixture, however a diesel engine will typically produce far less of it then a gasoline engine.

This is why it is detrimental to the engine and the environment to run a diesel engine at overload power and especially over-propped. And this is why it is so important to properly match the diesel engine to the application so that the engine can run on a perfect mixture as much of its life as possible.


Optimum window of combustion. Ignition lag time.


Mechanically injected engines. Governor. Rack. Spray duration. Pilot spray.


Electronically injected engines. Computer controlled. Sensors faults. Wiring faults. Multi-spray.


Naturally Aspirated vs Charged Air (turbocharged, etc.)


Installation: Prop Pitch. “Rack” position. Engine Ventilation.


The most popular diesel engines found in marine service are four-stroke cycle engines. These engines are quickly becoming even more popular because they are capable of delivering outstanding economy and extraordinary longevity with unparalleled safety. However, to achieve the maximum economy and longevity from a diesel engine, it is critical to select the “right” diesel engine for a particular application. Making this decision is not a simple task and many, including professionals, have failed because certain important factors were not taken into consideration. For one to understand what these factors are and why they are so important, one must understand a few important things about diesel engine technology. Understanding what goes on inside a diesel engine is critical and can be better understood if one first understands a little about gasoline engines.

In a naturally asperated four-stroke cycle gasoline engine with “Intake Port” fuel injection, air (which contains the oxygen for combustion), is drawn into the engine during the intake-stroke of the piston. But this air must first travel through the “Backfire Flame Arrestor”, then past the “Throttle Valve” and then on into the intake port of the cylinder head where fuel is injected in with the air which then travels past the open intake valve as it rapidly enters the cylinder. When the piston reaches the bottom of it’s stroke, the Intake valve closes and the piston begins it’s  upward compression stroke. As the piston nears the top of it’s compression stroke, a high tension spark is generated between the electrodes of the spark plug, igniting the fuel. High pressures created inside the combustion chamber by the chemical reaction of combustion then pushes the piston down through it’s power stroke, turning the crankshaft. When the piston reaches the bottom of it’s stoke, the exhaust valve opens so the exhaust can be pushed out of the cylinder during the piston’s upward exhaust stroke. As the piston reaches the top of it’s exhaust stroke, the  exhaust valve closes. This completes ONE four-stroke cycle and the engine is now ready to begin it’s next intake stroke. This operating cycle is familiar to many as illustrated below by the left animation. However, what is often overlooked is the critically important function that the throttle valve performs by controlling the quantity of air that enters the engine to combust with the fuel. The function and advantages of a throttle valve will be covered shortly.

Animations of 4sc Gas Engine & Diesel Engine

The animation above-right shows a naturally asperated four-stroke cycle diesel engine with “Direct” fuel injection. The diesel engine and the gasoline engine are both nearly identical except for four very significant differences. First, the compression ratio of a diesel engine is from two to three times that of a gasoline engine. This gives a diesel engine the ability to generate enough heat energy by compressing the air inside the combustion chamber to ignite the diesel fuel without a spark plug. Hence, a spark plug is not needed in the diesel engine. Instead, a diesel engine has a high pressure diesel fuel injector to spray the diesel fuel directly into the combustion chamber at just the right time to be ignited by the hot air generated by the high compression. Now lastly, and most importantly, a diesel engine does NOT have a throttle valve like the gasoline engine. In fact, a diesel engine can NOT have a throttle valve because if it did, as the valve closes, reducing the amount of air delivered to the combustion chamber, the heat generated by compression would be reduced to the point that it could no longer ignite the fuel and the engine would simply quit long before it reached idle.

The graphs below compare the consequences of the four significant differences between gasoline engines and diesel engines discussed above. In the gasoline engine graph below-left, the blue curve, representing the amount of air that enters the engine for combustion, increases as the throttle valve is opened from idle to “Wide Open Throttle” (WOT) making the engine produce more power and faster revolutions of the crankshaft. The green curve, representing the amount of fuel that enters the engine for combustion, also increases at nearly a one-to-one ratio with the air, but at a slightly fuel-rich mixture. It is the function of the fuel system to maintain the best fuel-to-air ratio throughout the power range so the engine can operate efficiently without backfiring from too fuel-lean a mixture or producing excessive exhaust emissions such as carbon soot, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide from too fuel-rich a mixture. Thus, the gasoline engine is capable of running fairly efficiently from Idle thru full throttle with little wear and the least amount of unburnt fuel possible.

Graphs of mixture differences.

Engine Power and Speed in RPM vs Power Setting (Throttle) with fixed load.

In the diesel engine graph above-right, the straight horizontal blue line, representing the amount of air that enters the engine for combustion, remains the same per intake stroke throughout the whole power range of the engine because there is no throttle valve to restrict it, like in the gasoline engine. The only thing that a diesel engine can do to control its power output and thus it’s crankshaft speed, is by increasing or decreasing the amount of fuel injected into the combustion chamber during each combustion phase. This results in the engine running at a super fuel-lean mixture at idle and a somewhat fuel-rich mixture at full power. Take note of where the green line (for fuel) crosses the blue line (for air). This is the only power setting where the engine receives the ideal one-to-one air-to-fuel mixture. Fuel mixture and why an engine can produce more power when running fuel-rich is explained in our article Fuel Fundamentals.

Consequences of Running a Diesel Engine “Fuel-Rich” or “Fuel-Lean”

When a diesel engine is running fuel-rich like at full power, it will produce unburned carbon in the form of soot because there will not be enough air to combust the fuel completely. This soot can easily be seen in the engine’s exhaust as the characteristic “black smoke”. This soot is very abrasive and causes rapid wear of the cylinder bores, piston rings, valve stems and valve guides. This soot also coats piston rings, pistons, cylinder heads, ports, valves and valve seats, preventing them from dissipating heat properly. When exhaust valves get covered by soot, they can overheat and break resulting in a “Sucked Valve”. When soot covers the spray tip of the fuel injector, the fuel will misfire and cause a multitude of other engine problems.


injector misfire

soot coats tip


The major consequence of this

narrow band of operation of diesel engine

sized for its load

look at exhaust smoke


In order to select the proper diesel engine for a boat, one must understand that a diesel engine’s power output is not actually controlled by a “throttle”, per se. That big lever next to the helm that we all call a “throttle” is actually an “engine speed selector”. What’s the difference? An engine’s “throttle” is connected to an intake air restricting valve and the other is connected to the injection pump governor.

It may help to think of it this way: To “throttle someone means to strangle them by cutting off their oxygen supply.

The power output of gasoline engines is controlled by a “throttle” valve (usually a butterfly type valve) located in the engine’s air intake throttle body that restricts the amount of air containing “oxygen” available to the combustion process inside the engine. When the air is reduced, the fuel system automatically reduces the amount of fuel mixed with the air to maintain the proper mixture and as a result, the engine naturally produces less power.

In a diesel engine however, there is no air control “throttle” valve to restrict the incoming air and thereby control the power output of the engine. In fact there can’t be such a valve because a diesel engine depends on the heat produced from air being compressed in the combustion chamber instead of a spark to ignite the fuel. When there is less air to compress, there will be less heat produced and at some point, there will not be enough heat to initiate combustion and the engine will simply quit. That is why air shut-off valves are sometimes installed on diesel engines for emergency engine shut-down to prevent engine runaway.

This means that the amount of oxygen containing air that enters the combustion chamber of a diesel engine per intake stroke of the piston is fairly consistent regardless of the engine RPM since it is not restricted by a throttle valve.

How then are diesel engines controlled since the air is not regulated?

Here is the answer. The power output of a diesel engine is controlled by changing the amount of fuel introduced into the combustion chamber per power phase of the engine cycle. In a mechanically injected diesel engine this is accomplished by the injection pump at the direction of the engine’s governor which adjusts the fuel injection “rack” according the position of the “engine speed selector” or what we call the “throttle” lever at the helm. The position of this lever asks the engine governor to provide the predetermined engine RPM for that particular lever position and the governor adjusts the injection “rack” to provide the amount of fuel that will produce the right power output to do so. That is why, once the lever is set, a diesel engine will maintain the predetermined RPM regardless of whether the engine is under load such as when the transmission is in gear or the engine is running freely with the transmission in neutral.

Unfortunately, this means that a diesel engine may be forced to run on a rich mixture during acceleration and heavy load (bellowing black smoke), and on a super-lean mixture when at idle.


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Detroit Diesel 8.2 Liter “Fuel Pincher” V8 Engine
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General Comments About the Website

FROM Donald: "This is an awesome website. I found the information that I needed right away from one of the over 20,000 free articles that you provide as a public service. I'm surprised that so much if this site is free. But I still signed up so I could access the thousands of expanded pages, interesting articles, and dozens of valuable programs! The member's library of books, magazines and videos that I can view online is really terrific! I understand that you and your staff are all unpaid volunteers. Please keep up the good work. And I commend you for your plans to add another 10,000 free informative articles over the next year. I'm thrilled to support you in this endeavor with my small membership donation. Thanks again for all your hard work."

FROM Huey: "I agree with my Uncle, I too have found the articles to be very enlightening. They say that it will take about 100,000 articles to cover the full scope that they have envisioned for the website. They have over 20,000 articles so far and that's doing pretty well, but it could take several years to get the rest. I also noticed that many of the Main Topic Pages and some of the article pages are still in the rough draft stage. I guess that they will fill in as they can get volunteers to work on them. But what I can't figure out is why anyone would spend the time writing informative in depth articles just to give away free to this website for publication? What's in it for them?"

FROM Dewey: "Well Huey, to me It looks like most of the articles on this website are written by very informed people, like boating instructors, boat designers, boat builders, riggers, electricians, fitters, marine repair technicians and marine surveyors. Writing such articles helps establish them as knowledgeable professionals. After all, this website was originally created by a school for marine technicians and marine surveyors. The website is growing in content every day. They even had to move to a bigger, more powerful server because the website's traffic has been growing exponentially."

FROM Louie: "I agree with everyone above. This site is quickly becoming the ultimate reference resource about every aspect of boats and ships for everyone from the beginning recreational boater to the seasoned professional mariner. I use the topic pages on the right sidebar to browse around the website. It's like a Junior Woodchucks' Guidebook for Boaters. Their Members' Library of over 300 popular and obscure books and over 200 magazine back issues that can be viewed online is fabulous. The Academy's magazine is especially informative. On top of that, there is the "Ask-An-Expert program for members where you can get an expert's answer to any of your boat questions. And a whole years membership is only $25. What a deal! I really love being part of this "Everything About Boats" community and help provide thousands of helpful articles free to the public. I think that I'll sit down right now and write an article about my experiences boating with my uncle."

FROM Scrooge: "You rave about this website like it was the best thing since sliced bread. Well, I think it stinks. Sure, it has a lot of good information for boaters, and they're adding more every day, but it will probably never be finished. Furthermore, I don't even own a boat. And I wouldn't have a boat even if someone gave me one. Boats are a waste of money and time and energy and money! They're just a hole in the water you pour money into. If you gave me a boat, I'd sell it quicker then you could say Baggywrinkle. Then I'd lock up the cash with all my other money so I could keep my eye on it and count it every day. Bah humbug."

FROM Daisy: "I'm just so glad that Donald got the boat so we and the boys could enjoy boating — together. And of course all of the girls, April, May, and June, love to be on the water too, especially when that is where the boys are. Oh poor Scrooge, boating is more fun then you could possibly imagine."

FROM Scrooge: "After seeing how much fun you all have on the water together, I regret that I didn't have that much fun when I was young. I've had a change of heart, and I'm giving each of you a Lifetime Academy Membership."

FROM Editor: "For those of you that have stayed with us this far, many thanks, and we hope that you found this little narrative informative. Your faithful support inspires us to keep working on this phenomenal website. We know that we have a lot more to do. Ultimately, we hope that we can help you enjoy the wonder filled world of boating as much as we do. We are all waiting to see what you have to say about this webpage article. Submit any comments via email To: Comments♣EverythingAboutBoats.org (Replace "♣" with "@"). Be sure to include this page's title in the subject line. Also, your corrections, updates, additions and suggestions are welcomed. Please submit them via email To: Editor♣EverythingAboutBoats.org (Replace "♣" with "@"). It has been truly amazing to see what we have been able to accomplished when we've worked together. Thanks to all those that have donated their valuable time and energy, and a special THANK YOU to all that have supported this cause with their membership donations."

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