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I'm learning about vacuum leaks on engine intakes and I'm hearing this terminology of lean air fuel mixture. I thought I heard of a rich mixture before too. What's a normal mixture referred to as? A balanced mixture?

Also just for clarity, this terminology doesn't apply to anything else in the vehicle does it? Like I wouldn't hear someone speaking of lean/rich oil, or lean/rich battery acid or some other substance the car uses right?

  • Did you really have to ask here when the answer is in the first sentence of "Air–fuel ratio" article in wikipedia? – Dmitry Grigoryev Aug 15 '16 at 7:15
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    "Lean" refers to meat which is low in fat, as well as to anything limited (as opposed to "rich," something overprovided). – Aaron Brick Aug 15 '16 at 15:55
  • @AaronBrick Yeah; you know, I was kinda wondering if, historically, the choice of those terms is somehow related to e.g. the use of animal fats or oils as fuels or something for like, old lanterns or whatever. It isn't common, but if you search around you do occasionally see people use "fat" instead of "rich" when talking about air-fuel ratios. It's obscure but it's definitely out there (one example, it's subtly mentioned in parentheses in the middle of that article). – Jason C Aug 15 '16 at 23:40
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I do not know the etymology of these words or the history of their use in the context of air-fuel ratios, although their dictionary definitions (lean [adj.], rich, too bad I don't have an OED subscription) and usage in other contexts does parallel their usage here. I did some cursory research but gave up, the folks on the English site may be able to help there. However, answering your basic question:

The terms are relative in the same sense that "dim" and "bright" are relative:

  • "Lean" means a lower fuel-to-air ratio; that is, less fuel in the mix; compared to something context-dependent.
  • "Rich" means a higher fuel-to-air ratio; that is, more fuel in the mix; compared to something context-dependent.

If you say, "the air-fuel mixture is rich" (or "too rich", same thing), it is implied to mean that there is more fuel in the mix than there should be in whatever situation you are talking about.

Now, there's a commonly quoted stoichiometrically ideal ratio of 14.7 air:gasoline. "Stoichiometrically" meaning that 14.7 masses of air react with 1 mass of gasoline according to the chemical reaction equation. This is often the context. You can find an interesting discussion of the finer points of this number here, mostly centered on the definition of "air".

So in that sense, when speaking of gasoline, if you said the mixture was "rich" then it means the ratio is < 14.7:1 air:gas, and if you say it's lean, you mean the ratio is > 14.7:1 air:gas.

But 14.7 isn't the magic number for other types of fuels, and may not be the magic number even for gasoline depending on other conditions in the engine. If you're talking about those situations, "rich" still means more than whatever amount of fuel is ideal for the given amount of air, and "lean" means less.

I guess if it was neither "rich" nor "lean" you'd call it... just right?

Still, I do not know why "rich" and "lean" were the chosen words for this, and wouldn't mind finding out, myself.

Also just for clarity, this terminology doesn't apply to anything else in the vehicle does it?

I have never heard it used in any other context. The words "lean" and "rich" are so strongly associated with the air-fuel ratio that if you told a mechanic that the battery acid was "rich" I suspect they would either wonder why you had gasoline in your battery acid, or why you were trying to build an engine that burned battery acid as a fuel, heh.

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    Your car doesn't burn battery acid? – immibis Aug 15 '16 at 6:06
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    Looks like another subtlety involved is the order of the ratio, AFR vs FAR. Sounds like AFR is used in the automotive context. – jxramos Aug 15 '16 at 7:00
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A lean air/fuel mixture is when there is more air than required to burn the fuel. A rich mixture is when there is too little air for the given quantity of fuel.

The ideal mixture, where there is exactly enough air to burn the fuel is known as the stoichiometric mixture and is about 15:1 for gasoline. That means 15 parts air to 1 part fuel.

You can have a read of the wikipedia page that discusses this:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air%E2%80%93fuel_ratio

No, this terminology is not used elsewhere for a vehicle.

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    Not that there's anything wrong with this answer, but I do think it's worth bearing in mind that there are situations where you may want a lean or rich mixture and that the ideal burn isn't necessarily ideal for the vehicle. For example, in aviation, it's common practice to lean out the mixture to increase the temperature when having problems with magnetos . And I've heard of people running cars deliberately on the rich side to prevent overheating. – Dan Aug 15 '16 at 9:02

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