If someone tells you they have seen a rotary engine, the chances are that you will immediately think of a Wankel engine, as you might find in some of the more exotic Mazda sports cars. But there is another rotary engine that has a prior claim to the name, and it can be found as the power unit for many early-twentieth-century aircraft. In these rotary engines the cylinders are arranged radially around a stationary crankshaft, and it is the engine itself that rotates. They have the advantage of extreme simplicity, smooth power, and a low parts count, at the expense of total loss lubrication, a relatively large rotating mass, and some difficulty in controlling their power. These rotary engines were largely obsolete by the 1920s, but recent upsurge of interest in WW1-era aircraft has led to the creation of a small demand for them. New Zealand based Classic Aero Machining Service have stepped in to fill that gap and are remanufacturing the Gnome radial engine, the most numerous design of that era.
For anyone with an interest in internal combustion engines, the Gnome is a fascinating study. It’s a nine-cylinder design that runs a four-stroke Otto cycle, but instead of the two or more valves you might be familiar with from your motor vehicle it has only a single valve. The so-called Monosoupape design uses its valve for both fuel and exhaust, opening it on the inlet stroke as well as the exhaust stroke. The simplicity of a single valve and no carburetor is thus offset by a difficulty in varying its power , so rotary engines would frequently reduce the number of firing cylinders in lieu of throttling back.
The CAMS Gnome is a faithful copy of the original, but with modern metallurgy and the addition of an electronic ignition system. The original castor oil is still used — it seems classic aviation buffs like the smell — but becuase it is notorious for leaving sticky deposits in the engine they are evaluating modern alternatives. They have some technical details on their website, and there’s a good chance you my hear one of their engines one day at an air show near you.
Thanks [Itay] for the tip.