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Miller cycle

In engineering, the Miller cycle is a combustion process used in a type of four-stroke internal combustion engine. The Miller cycle was patented by Ralph Miller (engineer), an American engineer, in the 1940s.

This type of engine was first used in ships and stationary power-generating plants, but was adapted by Mazda for their KJ-ZEM V6, used in the Millenia sedan. More recently, Subaru has combined a Miller cycle flat-4 with a hybrid driveline for their 'Turbo Parallel Hybrid' car, known as the Subaru B5-TPH.

A traditional Otto cycle engine uses four 'strokes', of which two can be considered 'high power' – the compression stroke (high power consumption) and power stroke (high power production). Much of the internal power loss of an engine is due to the energy needed to compress the charge during the compression stroke, so systems that reduce this power consumption can lead to greater efficiency.

In the Miller cycle, the intake valve is left open longer than it would be in an Otto cycle engine. In effect, the compression stroke is two discrete cycles: the initial portion when the intake valve is open and final portion when the intake valve is closed. This two-stage intake stroke creates the so called 'fifth' cycle that the Miller cycle introduces. As the piston initially moves upwards in what is traditionally the compression stroke, the charge is being pushed back out the still-open valve. Typically this loss of charge air would result in a loss of power. However, in the Miller cycle, the piston is over-fed with charge air from a supercharger, so pushing some of the charge air back out into the intake manifold is entirely planned. The supercharger typically will need to be of the positive displacement type due its ability to produce boost at relatively low engine speeds. Otherwise, low-rpm torque will suffer.

A key aspect of the Miller cycle is that the compression stroke actually starts only after the piston has pushed out this 'extra' charge and the intake valve closes. This happens at around 20% to 30% into the compression stroke. In other words, the actual compression occurs in the latter 70% to 80% of the compression stroke. The piston gets the same resulting compression as it would in a standard Otto cycle engine for 70% of the work.

The Miller cycle results in an advantage as long as the supercharger can compress the charge using less energy than the piston would use to do the same work. Over the entire compression range required by an engine, the supercharger is used to generate low levels of compression, where it is most efficient. Then, the piston is used to generate the remaining higher levels compression, operating in the range where it is more efficient than a supercharger. Thus the Miller cycle uses the supercharger for the portion of the compression where it is best, and the piston for the portion where it is best. In total, this reduces in the power needed to run the engine by 10% to 15%. To this end, successful production engines using this cycle have typically used variable valve timing to effectively switch off the Miller cycle in regions of operation where it does not offer an advantage.

In a typical spark ignition engine, the Miller cycle yields an additional benefit. The intake air is first compressed by the supercharger and then cooled by an intercooler. This lower intake charge temperature, combined with the lower compression of the intake stroke, yields a lower final charge temperature than would be obtained by simply increasing the compression of the piston. This allows ignition timing to be altered to beyond what is normally allowed before the onset of detonation, thus increasing the overall efficiency still further.

Efficiency is increased by raising the compression ratio. In a typical gasoline engine, the compression ratio is limited due to self-ignition (detonation) of the compressed, and therefore hot, air/fuel mixture. Due to the reduced compression stroke of a Miller cycle engine, a higher overall compression ratio (supercharger compression plus piston compression) is possible, and therefore a Miller cycle engine has a better efficiency.

It should be noted that the benefits of utilizing positive displacement superchargers do not come without a cost. 15% to 20% of the power generated by a supercharged engine is usually required to do the work of driving the supercharger, which compresses the intake charge (also known as boost).

A similar delayed-valve closing method is used in some modern versions of Atkinson cycle engines, but without the supercharging. These engines are generally found on hybrid electric vehicles, where efficiency is the goal, and the power lost compared to the Miller cycle is made up through the use of electric motors.