High-compression pistons are a common upgrade for dirt bikes and other motorcycles, but bumping compression isn’t always beneficial. We take a look what effects higher compression has, designing high-compression pistons, and what factors to address when considering adding one.
Whether you are racing or looking for increased performance out on the trail, there are a plethora of performance upgrades to consider to increase the power of your machine. Piston manufacturers like JE Pistons offer high compression piston options for many applications, but there are important merits and drawbacks you should consider when deciding if a high compression piston is right for your application. To better understand, we’ll take a look at what increasing compression ratio does, what effects this has on the engine, detail how high compression pistons are made, and provide a high-level overview of which applications may benefit from utilizing a high compression piston.
Let’s start with a quick review of what the compression ratio is, then we’ll get into how it affects performance. The compression ratio compares the volume above the piston at bottom dead center (BDC) to the volume above the piston at top dead center (TDC). Shown below is the mathematical equation that defines compression ratio:
The swept volume is the volume that the piston displaces as it moves through its stroke. The clearance volume is the volume of the combustion chamber when the piston is at top dead center (TDC). There are multiple calculations to finding clearance volume, but to keep this introductory, we are sticking to an overview. When alterations to the compression ratio are made, the clearance volume is reduced, resulting in a higher ratio. Reductions in clearance volume are typically achieved by modifying the geometry of the piston crown so that it occupies more combustion chamber space.
Want more technical details on making compression ratio calculations? Read this.
Swept volume is the volume displaced as the piston moves through the stroke, and clearance volume is the volume of the combustion chamber with the piston at top dead center.
How does an increased compression ratio affect engine performance? To understand how increasing the compression ratio affects performance, we have to start with understanding what happens to the fuel/air mixture on the compression stroke. During the compression stroke, the fuel/air mixture is compressed, and due to thermodynamic laws, the compressed mixture increases in temperature and pressure. Comparatively, increasing the compression ratio over that of a stock ratio, the fuel/air mixture is compressed more, resulting in increased temperature and pressure before the combustion event.
The resulting power that can be extracted from the combustion event is heavily dependent on the temperature and pressure of the fuel/air mixture prior to combustion. The temperature and pressure of the mixture before combustion influences the peak cylinder pressure during combustion, as well as the peak in-cylinder temperature. For thermodynamic reasons, increases in peak cylinder pressure and temperature during combustion will result in increased mechanical efficiency, the extraction of more work, and increased power during the power stroke. In summary, the more the fuel/air mixture can be compressed before combustion, the more energy can be extracted from it.
Higher compression allows for a larger amount of fuel/air mixture to be successfully combusted, ultimately resulting in more power produced during the power stroke.
However, there are limits to how much the mixture can be compressed prior to combustion. If the temperature of the mixture increases too much before the firing of the spark plug, the mixture can auto ignite, which is often referred to as pre-ignition. Another detrimental combustion condition that can also occur is called detonation. Detonation occurs when end gases spontaneously ignite after the spark plug fires. Both conditions put severe mechanical stress on the engine because cylinder pressures far exceed what the engine was designed for, which can damage top end components and negatively affect performance.
Detonation and pre-ignition can spike cylinder pressure and temperature, causing damage. Common signs of these conditions include pitting on the piston crown, particularly around the edges.
Now that there is an understanding of what changes occur during the combustion event to deliver increased power, we can look at what other effects these changes have on the engine. Since cylinder pressure is increased, more stress is put on the engine. The amount of additional stress that is introduced is largely dependent on the overall engine setup. Since combustion temperatures increase with increased compression ratio, the engine must also dissipate more heat. If not adequately managed, increased temperatures can reduce the lifespan of top-end components.
JE’s EN plating is a surface treatment that can protect the piston crown and ring grooves from potential damage caused by high cylinder pressure and temperature. EN can be an asset for longevity in a high-compression race build.
Read more about JE’s EN coating here.
Often, additional modifications can be made to help mitigate the side effects of increasing the compression ratio. To help reduce the risk of pre-ignition and detonation, using a fuel with a higher octane rating can be advantageous. Altering the combustion event by increasing the amount of fuel (richening the mixture) and changing the ignition timing can also help. Cooling system improvement can be an effective way to combat the additional heat generated by the combustion event. Selecting larger or more efficient radiators, oil coolers, and water pumps are all options that can be explored. Equipping the engine with a high-performance clutch can help reduce clutch slip and wear which can occur due to the increased power.
Let’s take a quick look at what considerations are made when designing a high compression piston. Typically, high compression pistons are made by adding dome volume to the piston crown, which reduces the clearance volume at TDC. In some cases, this is difficult to do depending on the combustion chamber shape, size of the valves, or the amount of valve lift. When designing the dome, it is essential to opt for smooth dome designs. Smooth domes as opposed to more aggressively ridged designs are preferred because the latter can result in hot spots on the piston crown, which can lead to pre-ignition. Another common design option is to increase the compression distance, which is the distance from the center of the wrist pin bore to the crown of the piston. In this approach, the squish clearance, which is the clearance between the piston and head, is reduced.
Higher compression is commonly achieved by increasing dome volume while retaining smooth characteristics, as pictured here with raised features and deep valve pockets. Compression height can also be increased, which increases the distance between the center of the pin bore and the crown of the piston.
A high-level overview of which applications can benefit from increased compression ratio can be helpful when assessing whether a high-compression upgrade is a good choice for your machine. Since increasing the compression ratio increases power and heat output, applications that benefit from the additional power and can cope with additional heat realize the most significant performance gains. Contrarily, applications where the bike is ridden at low speed, in tight conditions, or with lots of clutch use can be negatively impacted by incorporating a high compression piston. Keep in mind these statements are generalizations, and every engine responds differently to increased compression ratios. Below are lists of applications that may benefit from increasing the compression ratio as well as applications where increased compression may negatively influence performance.
Applications that may benefit from utilizing a high compression piston:
- Drag racing
- Road racing
- Ice racing
- Flat track
- Desert racing
Motocross and less technical off-road racing are two of multiple forms of racing in which high-compression pistons can benefit performance due to higher speeds and better air flow to keep the engine cool.
Applications that may be negatively affected by utilizing a high compression piston:
- Technical off-road/woods riding
- Other low speed/cooling applications
Lower speed racing/riding may not benefit as much from a high-compression piston, as heat in the engine will build up quicker due to lessened cooling ability.
Fortunately, if you’re considering increasing your engine’s compression ratio by utilizing a high compression piston, many aftermarket designs have been tested and optimized for specific engines and fuel octane ratings. For example, JE Pistons offers pistons at incrementally increased compression ratios so that you can incorporate a setup that works best for you.
For example, high-compression pistons from JE for off-road bikes and ATVs are commonly available in 0.5 compression ratio increases. Assume an engines stock compression ratio is 13.0:1, there will most likely be options of 13.5:1 and 14.0:1, so that you can make an informed decision on how much compression will benefit you based on your machine and type of riding.
From left to right are 13.0:1, 13.5:1, and 14.0:1 compression ratio pistons, all for a YZ250F. Notice the differences in piston dome volume and design.
If performance is sufficient at an engine’s stock compression ratio, there are still improvements in efficiency and durability that can be made with a forged piston. Forged pistons have a better aligned alloy grain flow than cast pistons, creating a stronger part more resistant to the stresses of engine operation. In addition to forged material, improvements can be made on piston skirt style design to increase strength over stock designs, such as with JE’s FSR designs. JE also commonly addresses dome design on stock compression pistons, employing smoothness across valve reliefs edges and other crown features to improve flame travel, decrease hot spots, and ultimately increase the engine’s efficiency.
Even if stock compression is better for your application; forged construction, stronger skirt designs, and more efficient crown designs can still provide improved performance and durability.
If it’s time for a new piston but you’re still not sure what compression ratio to go with, give the folks at JE a call for professional advice on your specific application.