Internal combustion engines can contain any number of combustion chambers (cylinders), with numbers between one and twelve being common, though as many as 36 (Lycoming R-7755) have been used. Having more cylinders in an engine yields two potential benefits: first, the engine can have a larger displacement with smaller individual reciprocating masses, that is, the mass of each piston can be less thus making a smoother-running engine since the engine tends to vibrate as a result of the pistons moving up and down. Doubling the number of the same size cylinders will double the torque and power. The downside to having more pistons is that the engine will tend to weigh more and generate more internal friction as the greater number of pistons rub against the inside of their cylinders. This tends to decrease fuel efficiency and robs the engine of some of its power. For high-performance gasoline engines using current materials and technology, such as the engines found in modern automobiles, there seems to be a point around 10 or 12 cylinders after which the addition of cylinders becomes an overall detriment to performance and efficiency. Although, exceptions such as the W16 engine from Volkswagen exist.
- Most car engines have four to eight cylinders, with some high-performance cars having ten, 12 — or even 16, and some very small cars and trucks having two or three. In previous years, some quite large cars such as the DKW and Saab 92, had two-cylinder or two-stroke engines.
- Radial aircraft engines had from three to 28 cylinders; examples include the small Kinner B-5 and the large Pratt & Whitney R-4360. Larger examples were built as multiple rows. As each row contains an odd number of cylinders, to give an even firing sequence for a four-stroke engine, an even number indicates a two- or four-row engine. The largest of these was the Lycoming R-7755 with 36 cylinders (four rows of nine cylinders), but it did not enter production.
- Snowmobiles Usually have one to four cylinders and can be both 2-stroke or 4-stroke, normally in the in-line configuration; however, there are again some novelties that exist with V-4 engines
- Small portable appliances such as chainsaws, generators, and domestic lawn mowers most commonly have one cylinder, but two-cylinder chainsaws exist.
- Large reversible two-cycle marine diesels have a minimum of three to over ten cylinders. Freight diesel locomotives usually have around 12 to 20 cylinders due to space limitations, as larger cylinders take more space (volume) per kwh, due to the limit on average piston speed of less than 30 ft/sec on engines lasting more than 40, 000 hours under full power.
The ignition system of an internal combustion engines depends on the type of engine and the fuel used. Petrol engines are typically ignited by a precisely timed spark, and diesel engines by compression heating. Historically, outside flame and hot-tube systems were used, see hot bulb engine.
In a spark ignition engine, a mixture is ignited by an electric spark from a spark plug — the timing of which is very precisely controlled. Almost all gasoline engines are of this type. Diesel engines timing is precisely controlled by the pressure pump and injector. The normal plug distance between the spark plug is the 1mm apart. and the voltage is 3000v at normal atmospheric conditions
Ignition occurs as the temperature of the fuel/air mixture is taken over its autoignition temperature, due to heat generated by the compression of the air during the compression stroke. The vast majority of compression ignition engines are diesels in which the fuel is mixed with the air after the air has reached ignition temperature. In this case, the timing comes from the fuel injection system. Very small model engines for which simplicity and light weight is more important than fuel costs use easily ignited fuels (a mixture of kerosene, ether, and lubricant) and adjustable compression to control ignition timing for starting and running.