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The metallic sound produced by a spark-ignition petrol engine under certain conditions. It is caused by rapid combustion of the unburnt explosive mixture in the combustion chambers ahead of the flame front. As the flame travels from the sparking plug towards the piston it compresses and heats the unburnt gases ahead of it. If the flame front moves fast enough, normal combustion occurs and the explosive mixture is ignited progressively by the flame. If it moves too slowly, ignition of the last part of the unburnt gas can occur very rapidly before the flame reaches it, producing a shock wave that travels back and forth across the combustion chamber. The result is overheating, possible damage to the plugs, an undesirable noise, and loss of power (probably due to preignition caused by overheated plugs). Knocking can be avoided by an engine design that increases turbulence in the combustion chamber and thereby increases flame speed. It also can be avoided by reducing the compression ratio, but this involves loss of efficiency. The most effective method is to use high-octane fuel (see octane number), which has a longer self-ignition delay than low-octane fuels. This can be achieved by the addition of an antiknock agent, such as lead(IV) tetraethyl, to the fuel, which retards the combustion chain reactions. However, lead-free petrol is now preferred to petrol containing lead tetraethyl owing to environmental dangers arising from lead in the atmosphere. In the USA the addition of lead compounds is now forbidden. New formulae for petrol are designed to raise the octane number without polluting the atmosphere. These new formulae include increasing the content of aromatics and oxygenates (oxygen-containing compounds, such as alcohols). However, it is claimed that the presence in the atmosphere of incompletely burnt aromatics constitutes a cancer risk.

Subjects: Chemistry — Physics.

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