What is the difference between high octane and low octane fuel? I'm not asking if one is better than the other for my vehicle, specifically, but rather what occurs differently both scientifically and mechanically when either is used?
So-called "octane number" is a measure of how much the air-fuel mix is resistant to detonation.
The higher the "octane number" is the more resistant it is and the more is can be compressed without exploding. The higher the pressure is at the point the air-fuel mix ignites the more efficient the engine works.
Modern engines are designed for some rather high air-fuel mix pressure, if the mix ignites before that pressure is reached the engine just won't work right, because ignition will happen at the wrong moment of the engine cycle. That's why only fuel with right "octane number" should be used for any engine - depending on how that engine is designed, otherwise it just won't work right. The vehicle manual usually specifies which "octane number" is right for that vehicle engine.
Just to add a tad to what's already a good and thorough answer... higher octane is more detonation resistant because it is not as easily combustible. This is why sometime people actually see drop in horsepower/mileage when they put higher octane into the car than what is recommended by the manufacturer. Sometimes when people buy a new car, they feel like they should only "put the best" in it, but in case of gasoline, spending more on gas than they have to, actually doesn't do anything and reduces performance– DXMMay 29, 2011 at 9:41
1DXM's point is sometimes true, but not for high compression engines. The 'best' fuel is the one specified in the manual. Jul 25, 2011 at 22:44
Too high octane fuel will waste money and reduce performance. Too low octane fuel will lead to pre-detonation which will melt expensive bits of your engine and make you cry. I've seen horrifying pictures of what happens when people double the turbo boost pressure in their engines and don't think of upping the octane rating of the fuel to compensate for the increased pressure in the cylinders. THe compression RATIO stays the same, but the VOLUME of gases per stroke increases, leading to higher pressures. May 4, 2014 at 18:31
1@JuannStrauss: Why would too high octane fuel reduce performance exactly? May 5, 2014 at 6:31
Your ECU will spend about 100 miles trying to adjust your ignition timing and other variables to compensate for the different burning characteristics of the high octane fuel. Unless you feel like removing the battery for 30 minutes each time you fill up. May 5, 2014 at 8:14
Here's the deal : higher octane means less volatility, and this is meant for engines with higher compression so that the fuel doesn't ignite too early in the cycle . Lower octane fuel is more volatile and is meant for engines where compression rates are lower, so that the ignition in the cycle not occur too early .
In all cases, follow the manufacturer's octane recommendation for better performance . However most cars which use high octane are able to accept regular gas because they are equipped with knock sensors which will automatically adjust the engine cycle timing, thus reducing engine knock or detonation. Engine performance will be diminished however.
For an engine, there is a specific peak pressure that it can withstand, which is limited my the mechanical stress limit of the components of the engine parts. This peak pressure is in direct relation to the compression ratio of the engine and the octane rating of the fuel. The compression ratio of the engine stays constant. With a low Octane rating, there will be misfires happening at an undesired position of the piston, leading to drop in the power extraction from that stroke, and undesirable detonation points in the combustion chamber which leads to melting and cracking of cylinder head and engine liners. Too much octane rating makes the mixture more resistant to compression, leading to the escape of much of unburnt gases to escape during the exhaust stroke leading to drop in the efficiency. So for any engine there will be a specific octane rating mentioned by the manufacturer and it should be used for maximum efficiency.
The octane rating tells you how resistant fuel is to premature detonation, i.e. burning before it's meant to. It's quite a long explanation, depending on how much you already know. The short answer is that high octane fuel allows you to fire the spark plug closer to the optimal point during the compression stroke to allow the engine to perform at its best. I found this page, which covers the topic pretty well and should answer your question thoroughly:
@sharptooth's answer is arguably more accurate and useful than that linked page, Juann. It has some rather dubious info. Nov 13, 2014 at 15:17