Oxygen Sensor or Lambda Sensor
The oxygen sensor in your Vehicle is an electronic component that is designed to measure levels of oxygen in the engine exhaust. Typically, the oxygen sensor is mounted to the exhaust system tube, with the sensor part inside the tube. This measures the oxygen mixture by generating a small amount of electricity due to the difference in atmosphere, oxygen and carbon dioxide. The computer PCM monitors this voltage and adjustsfuel delivery accordingly.
The oxygen sensor or Lambda sensor (AKA O2 Sensor) in your car is one of the key components in the fuel injection system. Its job is to measure the amount of oxygen required to burn any fuel remaining in the exhaust stream and relay that information back to the computer PCM (Powertrain Control Module) where it is compared with other live information so that adjustments can be made to maximizefuel efficiency andpower via proper air-fuel mixture and ignition timing in the engine. Oxygen sensors do this through a chemical reaction inside the sensor itself; in this article we will explain the evolution and application of this very important piece of the fuel injection puzzle
Early oxygen sensors were simple one or two wire sensors that gave feedback to the computer through a chemical reaction within the sensor that creates voltage. These early sensors had to warm up before they became active, which means they didn’t work until they had reached the operating temperature in the exhaust system required for the chemical reaction to work properly as well as the engine reaching a close-to-operating coolant temperature. While extremely simple, they worked fine with the basic fuel injection systems of the time, which had extremely slow BOD rates (rate at which information is processed in the computer). As technology improved, the sensors had to be improved upon as well.
Oxygen sensors work through a chemical reaction. The core or element of the sensor is Zirconia ceramic with a thin layer of platinum. Since these materials are reactive and are applied as layers they will eventually wear out reducing their efficiency, you should follow your vehicle manufacturers recommendations as far as replacement. A common misconception is that the sensors measure the actual amount of oxygen in the exhaust, when in reality they measure the amount of oxygen required to burn any fuel that is remaining in the exhaust stream. For instance a rich condition (too much fuel) will cause a higher voltage reading since it is creating a demand for oxygen within the sensor to burn the fuel, whereas a lean condition will do the exact opposite. The voltage created by the sensor is then relayed to the computer where it will compare it with other live information to make the necessary mixture and timing adjustments.
As fuel injection evolved, so did the oxygen sensor. They have gone from one-wire sensors that ground through the outer case to four-wire sensors that ground externally and have built in heaters to bring them up to the required temperature quickly so that the computer can begin adjusting the mixture as soon a possible to improve emissions as well as performance. Oxygen sensors are now also being used to measure the efficiency of the catalytic converter to be sure that it is working properly. By placing an oxygen sensor in the exhaust system in front (Primary or upstream) of the converter and one behind it (secondary or downstream) the computer can see if the converter is reducing emissions as designed while it is adjusting for optimum performance.
Oxygen sensors can usually be found in the exhaust pipe near the engine (Primary sensor) although sometimes they are mounted in the exhaust manifold itself where the exhaust pipe connects. The secondary sensor will be found behind or in the catalytic converter so as to measure its efficiency. Early systems would use just one primary sensor and adjust the entire engine based on that reading, whereas newer fuel injection systems use a sensor for each side of the engine for V-6 and V-8 engine and even will sometimes use 2 primary sensors on an inline 4 or 6 cylinder to adjust the mixture more accurately. The number of secondary sensors will depend on how many catalytic converters the vehicle has. A dual exhaust system would require 2, but a single only needs one since all it does is measure catalyst efficiency.
Oxygen sensors come in two basic designs, narrow band and wide band. To work properly, narrow band sensors (most common) use a cycling of rich to lean mixture to achieve a balance close to a stoichiometric mixture (ideal for internal combustion). Wide band sensors use what is called a electrochemical gas pump to keep a constant current in the electromechanical cell, this stability eliminates the rich-lean cycling of the narrow band sensor and makes the mixture adjustments much more accurate and faster. These sensors are fairly rare in production vehicles; they are used more in controlled environments such as dynamometer rooms, but will be seen in Diesel engines to help them meet new emissions standards. Regardless of design changes or differences, all oxygen sensors work on the same principal and do the same thing.
Since oxygen sensors are made of reactive materials, their life span is definitely limited. Aside from mechanical failures such as shorted heating elements or physical damage, these sensors will usually last around 100,00 miles for a heated element sensor and roughly half that (50,000) miles for a non-heated sensor. The difference is basically due to the slow warm up time for the non-heated sensor allowing build up to collect on the sensor, hampering its ability to accurately read the exhaust gasses. If an engine has a mechanical failure such as a head gasket (coolant) or an issue that causes oil consumption (Rings, valve guides), it will drastically shorten its life, if not ruin the sensor all together from heavy contamination of the reactive materials.
When replacing your oxygen sensor, be sure to use a high-quality OEM (Original Equipment manufacturer) part. Cheaper sensors aren’t as accurate and don’t last as long as an OEM sensor will, and can cause performance issues as well as emissions problems. Always consult yourservice manual for the proper parts and procedures for repairing your vehicle, and also wear the proper safety equipment when working on a vehicle.
Car Oxygen Sensor Cut Away
The oxygen sensor is in continuous communication with the engine control unit giving it the information necessary to adjust fuel delivery for optimum combustion. When the engine is cold the oxygen sensor reads slowly, a heating element has been installed to correct this problem and help the sensor operate correctly until the engine has reached operating temperature. When the throttle is wide open and under max load the oxygen sensor will go to full voltage output until normal driving conditions return.
Typically changing an oxygen sensor when necessary is a simple process. Most solutions to oxygen sensor problems result inchanging the oxygen sensor, but always be sure there are no vacuum leaks present in the intake system, this can give a false oxygen sensor trouble code. Due to the severe usage environment the sensor endures, it is common for most sensors to last approximately 75,000 miles, however it is not uncommon for an oxygen sensor to last only 40,000 miles depending on your driving habits and vehicle operating conditions.
Over the life of the oxygen sensor soot build up can occur on the sensing probe which can result in inaccurate read
Automotive oxygen sensors, colloquially known as O2 sensors, make modern electronic fuel injection and emission control possible. They help determine, in real time, if the air–fuel ratio of a combustion engine is rich or lean. Since oxygen sensors are located in the exhaust stream, they do not directly measure the air or the fuel entering the engine. But when information from oxygen sensors is coupled with information from other sources, it can be used to indirectly determine the air-fuel ratio. Closed loop feedback-controlled fuel injection varies the fuel injector output according to real-time sensor data rather than operating with a predetermined (open-loop) fuel map. In addition to enabling electronic fuel injection to work efficiently, this emissions control technique can reduce the amounts of both unburnt fuel and oxides of nitrogen entering the atmosphere. Unburnt fuel is pollution in the form of air-borne hydrocarbons, while oxides of nitrogen (NOx gases) are a result of combustion chamber temperatures exceeding 1,300 kelvin due to excess air in the fuel mixture and contribute to smog and acid rain. Volvo was the first automobile manufacturer to employ this technology in the late 1970s, along with the three-way catalyst used in the catalytic converter.
The sensor does not actually measure oxygen concentration, but rather the difference between the amount of oxygen in the exhaust gas and the amount of oxygen in air. Rich mixture causes an oxygen demand. This demand causes a voltage to build up, due to transportation of oxygen ions through the sensor layer. Lean mixture causes low voltage, since there is an oxygen excess.
Modern spark-ignited combustion engines use oxygen sensors and catalytic converters in order to reduce exhaust emissions. Information on oxygen concentration is sent to the engine management computer or ECU, which adjusts the amount of fuel injected into the engine to compensate for excess air or excess fuel. The ECU attempts to maintain, on average, a certain air–fuel ratio by interpreting the information it gains from the oxygen sensor. The primary goal is a compromise between power, fuel economy, and emissions, and in most cases is achieved by an air-fuel-ratio close to stoichiometric. For spark-ignition engines (such as those that burn gasoline, as opposed to diesel), the three types of emissions modern systems are concerned with are: hydrocarbons (which are released when the fuel is not burnt completely, such as when misfiring or running rich), carbon monoxide (which is the result of running slightly rich) and NOx (which dominate when the mixture is lean). Failure of these sensors, either through normal aging, the use of leaded fuels, or fuel contaminated with silicones or silicates, for example, can lead to damage of an automobile's catalytic converter and expensive repairs.
Tampering with or modifying the signal that the oxygen sensor sends to the engine computer can be detrimental to emissions control and can even damage the vehicle. When the engine is under low-load conditions (such as when accelerating very gently, or maintaining a constant speed), it is operating in "closed-loop mode." This refers to a feedback loop between the ECU and the oxygen sensor(s) in which the ECU adjusts the quantity of fuel and expects to see a resulting change in the response of the oxygen sensor. This loop forces the engine to operate both slightly lean and slightly rich on successive loops, as it attempts to maintain a mostly stoichiometric ratio on average. If modifications cause the engine to run moderately lean, there will be a slight increase in fuel economy, sometimes at the expense of increased NOx emissions, much higher exhaust gas temperatures, and sometimes a slight increase in power that can quickly turn into misfires and a drastic loss of power, as well as potential engine damage, at ultra-lean air-to-fuel ratios. If modifications cause the engine to run rich, then there will be a slight increase in power to a point (after which the engine starts flooding from too much unburned fuel), but at the cost of decreased fuel economy, and an increase in unburned hydrocarbons in the exhaust which causes overheating of the catalytic converter. Prolonged operation at rich mixtures can cause catastrophic failure of the catalytic converter (see backfire). The ECU also controls the spark engine timing along with the fuel injector pulse width, so modifications which alter the engine to operate either too lean or too rich may result in inefficient fuel consumption whenever fuel is ignited too soon or too late in the combustion cycle.
When an internal combustion engine is under high load (e.g. wide open throttle), the output of the oxygen sensor is ignored, and the ECU automatically enriches the mixture to protect the engine, as misfires under load are much more likely to cause damage. This is referred to as an engine running in 'open-loop mode'. Any changes in the sensor output will be ignored in this state. In many cars (with the exception of some turbocharged models), inputs from the air flow meter are also ignored, as they might otherwise lower engine performance due to the mixture being too rich or too lean, and increase the risk of engine damage due to detonation if the mixture is too lean.
Function of a lambda probe
Lambda probes are used to reduce vehicle emissions by ensuring that engines burn their fuel efficiently and cleanly. Robert Bosch GmbH introduced the first automotive lambda probe in 1976, and it was first used by Volvo and Saab in that year. The sensors were introduced in the US from about 1979, and were required on all models of cars in many countries in Europe in 1993.
By measuring the proportion of oxygen in the remaining exhaust gas, and by knowing the volume and temperature of the air entering the cylinders amongst other things, an ECU can use look-up tables to determine the amount of fuel required to burn at the stoichiometric ratio (14.7:1 air:fuel by mass for gasoline) to ensure complete combustion.
The sensor element is a ceramic cylinder plated inside and out with porous platinum electrodes; the whole assembly is protected by a metal gauze. It operates by measuring the difference in oxygen between the exhaust gas and the external air, and generates a voltage or changes its resistance depending on the difference between the two.
The sensors only work effectively when heated to approximately 316 °C (600 °F), so most newer lambda probes have heating elements encased in the ceramic that bring the ceramic tip up to temperature quickly. Older probes, without heating elements, would eventually be heated by the exhaust, but there is a time lag between when the engine is started and when the components in the exhaust system come to a thermal equilibrium. The length of time required for the exhaust gases to bring the probe to temperature depends on the temperature of the ambient air and the geometry of the exhaust system. Without a heater, the process may take several minutes. There are pollution problems that are attributed to this slow start-up process, including a similar problem with the working temperature of a catalytic converter.
The probe typically has four wires attached to it: two for the lambda output, and two for the heater power, although some automakers use a common ground for the sensor element and heaters, resulting in three wires. Earlier non-electrically-heated sensors had one or two wires.
Operation of the probe
The zirconium dioxide, or zirconia, lambda sensor is based on a solid-state electrochemical fuel cell called the Nernst cell. Its two electrodes provide an output voltage corresponding to the quantity of oxygen in the exhaust relative to that in the atmosphere. An output voltage of 0.2 V (200 mV) DC represents a "lean mixture" of fuel and oxygen, where the amount of oxygen entering the cylinder is sufficient to fully oxidize the carbon monoxide (CO), produced in burning the air and fuel, into carbon dioxide (CO2). An output voltage of 0.8 V (800 mV) DC represents a "rich mixture", one which is high in unburned fuel and low in remaining oxygen. The ideal setpoint is approximately 0.45 V (450 mV) DC. This is where the quantities of air and fuel are in the optimum ratio, which is ~0.5% lean of the stoichiometric point, such that the exhaust output contains minimal carbon monoxide.
The voltage produced by the sensor is nonlinear with respect to oxygen concentration. The sensor is most sensitive near the stoichiometric point and less sensitive when either very lean or very rich.
The engine control unit (ECU) is a control system that uses feedback from the sensor to adjust the fuel/air mixture. As in all control systems, the time constant of the sensor is important; the ability of the ECU to control the fuel-air-ratio depends upon the response time of the sensor. An aging or fouled sensor tends to have a slower response time, which can degrade system performance. The shorter the time period, the higher the so-called "cross count" and the more responsive the system.
The zirconia sensor is of the "narrow band" type, referring to the narrow range of fuel/air ratios to which it responds.
Wideband zirconia sensor
A variation on the zirconia sensor, called the "wideband" sensor, was introduced by Robert Bosch in 1994, and has been widely used for car engine management systems in order to meet the ever-increasing demands for better fuel economy, lower emissions and better engine performance at the same time. It is based on a planar zirconia element, but also incorporates an electrochemical gas pump. An electronic circuit containing a feedback loop controls the gas pump current to keep the output of the electrochemical cell constant, so that the pump current directly indicates the oxygen content of the exhaust gas. This sensor eliminates the lean-rich cycling inherent in narrow-band sensors, allowing the control unit to adjust the fuel delivery and ignition timing of the engine much more rapidly. In the automotive industry this sensor is also called a UEGO (for Universal Exhaust Gas Oxygen) sensor. UEGO sensors are also commonly used in aftermarket dyno tuning and high-performance driver air-fuel display equipment. The wideband zirconia sensor is used in stratified fuel injection systems, and can now also be used in diesel engines to satisfy the upcoming EURO and ULEV emission limits.
Wideband sensors have three elements:
- Ion oxygen pump
- Narrowband zirconia sensor
- Heating element
The wiring diagram for the wideband sensor typically has six wires:
- resistive heating element (two wires)
- calibration resistor
A less common type of narrow-band lambda sensor has a ceramic element made of titania (titanium dioxide). This type does not generate its own voltage, but changes its electrical resistance in response to the oxygen concentration. The resistance of the titania is a function of the oxygen partial pressure and the temperature. Therefore, some sensors are used with a gas temperature sensor to compensate for the resistance change due to temperature. The resistance value at any temperature is about 1/1000 the change in oxygen concentration. Luckily, at lambda = 1, there is a large change of oxygen, so the resistance change is typically 1000 times between rich and lean, depending on the temperature.
As titania is an N-type semiconductor with a structure TiO2-x, the x defects in the crystal lattice conduct the charge. So, for fuel-rich exhaust (lower oxygen concentration) the resistance is low, and for fuel-lean exhaust (higher oxygen concentration) the resistance is high. The control unit feeds the sensor with a small electrical current and measures the resulting voltage drop across the sensor, which varies from near 0 volts to about 5 volts. Like the zirconia sensor, this type is nonlinear, such that it is sometimes simplistically described as a binary indicator, reading either "rich" or "lean". Titania sensors are more expensive than zirconia sensors, but they also respond faster.
In automotive applications the titania sensor, unlike the zirconia sensor, does not require a reference sample of atmospheric air to operate properly. This makes the sensor assembly easier to design against water contamination. While most automotive sensors are submersible, zirconia-based sensors require a very small supply of reference air from the atmosphere. In theory, the sensor wire harness and connector are sealed. Air that leaches through the wire harness to the sensor is assumed to come from an open point in the harness - usually the ECU which is housed in an enclosed space like the trunk or vehicle interior.
Location of the probe in a system
The probe is typically screwed into a threaded hole in the exhaust system, located after the branch manifold of the exhaust system combines, and before the catalytic converter. New vehicles are required to have a sensor before and after the exhaust catalyst to meet U.S. regulations requiring that all emissions components be monitored for failure. Pre and post-catalyst signals are monitored to determine catalyst efficiency. Additionally, some catalyst systems require brief cycles of lean (oxygen-containing) gas to load the catalyst and promote additional oxidation reduction of undesirable exhaust components.
The air-fuel ratio and naturally, the status of the sensor, can be monitored by means of using an air-fuel ratio meter that displays the read output voltage of the sensor.
Normally, the lifetime of an unheated sensor is about 30,000 to 50,000 miles (50,000 to 80,000 km). Heated sensor lifetime is typically 100,000 miles (160,000 km). Failure of an unheated sensor is usually caused by the buildup of soot on the ceramic element, which lengthens its response time and may cause total loss of ability to sense oxygen. For heated sensors, normal deposits are burned off during operation and failure occurs due to catalyst depletion. The probe then tends to report lean mixture, the ECU enriches the mixture, the exhaust gets rich with carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, and the fuel economy worsens.
Leaded gasoline contaminates the oxygen sensors and catalytic converters. Most oxygen sensors are rated for some service life in the presence of leaded gasoline but sensor life will be shortened to as little as 15,000 miles depending on the lead concentration. Lead-damaged sensors typically have their tips discolored light rusty.
Another common cause of premature failure of lambda probes is contamination of fuel with silicones (used in some sealings and greases) or silicates (used as corrosion inhibitors in some antifreezes). In this case, the deposits on the sensor are colored between shiny white and grainy light gray.
Leaks of oil into the engine may cover the probe tip with an oily black deposit, with associated loss of response.
An overly rich mixture causes buildup of black powdery deposit on the probe. This may be caused by failure of the probe itself, or by a problem elsewhere in the fuel rationing system.
Applying an external voltage to the zirconia sensors, e.g. by checking them with some types of ohmmeter, may damage them.
Some sensors have an air inlet to the sensor in the lead, so contamination from the lead caused by water or oil leaks can be sucked into the sensor and cause failure.
Symptoms of a failing oxygen sensor includes:
- Sensor Light on dash indicates problem
- Increased tailpipe emissions
- Increased fuel consumption
- Hesitation on acceleration
- Rough idling