A turbocharger is an exhaust-driven forced induction device that boosts the power output of an internal combustion engine by pushing extra compressed air into the combustion chambers. Turbocharging allows smaller, more efficient engines to have the power of larger engines but with better fuel economy. Let’s take a look at how a turbocharger works its magic!
What is a Turbocharger?
A turbocharger consists of a turbine and a compressor connected by a shared axle. It works by having the turbine spin from the force of the exhaust gases exiting the engine. This turbine then drives the compressor, which sucks in ambient air and pumps it into the engine at higher pressure. This denser air allows more fuel to be burned, increasing the power generated.
The turbine and compressor are housed in a center housing, which routes the exhaust and air flows. A wastegate regulates the boost pressure by allowing some exhaust gas to bypass the turbine. Overall, a turbocharger allows an engine to burn more fuel and air by packing more into the combustion chamber.
Types of Turbochargers
There are a few common types of turbochargers:
Some engines use two smaller turbochargers instead of one large one. This allows faster spool-up of the turbos to reduce lag (see disadvantages).
Variable Geometry Turbo (VGT)
VGT turbochargers can alter the angle of the turbine blades to optimize operation across engine speeds. This gives a better boost response.
As mentioned before, a wastegate releases some exhaust gas past the turbine to regulate boost pressure. Wastegate actuators control the opening of the wastegate valve.
Main Components of a Turbocharger
A turbocharger has just a few main parts, but they are precision engineered for tough conditions.
The turbine wheel has blades angled to capture kinetic energy from the exhaust stream to spin the compressor. These spun at over 100,000 rpm!
The compressor wheel uses centrifugal force to draw in and compress air up to 8 times atmospheric pressure.
This houses the bearings and shafts that connect the turbine and compressor wheels. It also directs engine exhausts gases and compressed airflow.
Found on the turbine housing, the wastegate allows some exhaust to bypass it to control boost pressure. The wastegate valve opening is controlled by the wastegate actuator.
How a Turbocharger Operates
Let’s walk through how a turbocharger works when mounted to an engine:
Exhaust Flow Through the Turbine
Exhaust gases exiting the engine contain lots of kinetic energy. This high-velocity exhaust spins the turbine blades as it passes through the housing.
Compressed Air Flow to the Engine
The turbine’s rotation spins the compressor wheels via the connected shaft. The compressor draws in ambient air and centrifugally pumps it into the intake manifold at high pressure.
The wastegate actuator senses boost pressure and can open the wastegate valve to bypass some exhaust around the turbine. This prevents over-boosting the intake air.
Advantages of Turbochargers
Turbochargers have some great benefits, including:
Increased Engine Power
The extra air being packed into the engine allows more fuel to be burned, which means bigger bangs in the combustion chambers and more horsepower.
Improved Fuel Efficiency
Smaller engines can be turbocharged to produce the power of larger ones. The smaller engine is more efficient under light loads.
When driven gently, a turbocharged engine has lower emissions than a naturally aspirated bigger block.
Disadvantages of Turbochargers
However, there are some disadvantages to turbos:
This is the delay in power delivery as the engine rpm comes up to start spinning the turbo. Sequential turbochargers reduce lag.
Higher Exhaust Temperatures
The turbine housing sees very high temperatures. Exhaust manifolds need improved materials and cooling.
The turbocharger system requires specialized maintenance for optimal performance and reliability.
Recent Innovations in Turbocharger Technology
Some recent improvements in turbocharger tech include:
- Stronger and lighter materials like ceramic composites for the turbine and compressor wheels
- Ball bearings that handle higher temperatures and speeds
- Twin-scroll turbines that separate exhaust pulses for smoother flow
- Sophisticated electronic wastegate control for sharper response
The Future of Turbochargers
Turbocharger use will only increase as emission regulations tighten and fuel efficiency becomes more important. Expect innovations like:
- Electrically assisted boost for instant response
- Improved variable vane designs for broader power bands
- 3D-printed components with complex cooling pathways
Turbochargers allow smaller, cleaner, more efficient engines to deliver the power drivers expect. The technology will continue improving to provide responsive power delivery across engine speeds. While the basic principle is over 100 years old, there are still many enhancements being engineered into these clever power-boosting devices.
In summary, a turbocharger allows an engine to burn more air and fuel by compressing intake air with a turbine spun by the exhaust stream. Its main components are a turbine, compressor, center housing, and wastegate. A turbo takes exhaust energy that would be wasted and uses it to increase power, efficiency, and emissions performance. Turbocharger technology will continue advancing to provide broader power bands and quicker response times. While they have some drawbacks like lag, turbos are an integral way to extract more power from smaller, cleaner engines.
What is the main benefit of a turbocharger?
The main benefit is the ability to get more power from a smaller engine. Turbocharging allows smaller engines to have the power of bigger blocks while maintaining better fuel efficiency.
What causes turbo lag?
Turbo lag happens because the exhaust flow must first spin up the turbo to high rpm before it can produce full boost pressure. It takes some time for exhaust velocity to increase after throttle application.
Can a turbocharger be added to any engine?
No, the engine needs a specially designed turbocharger system matched to it for proper air and exhaust flow. The engine also needs upgraded components to handle the higher pressures and temperatures.
What maintenance does a turbocharger need?
Turbos require occasional inspection and replacement of the oil and coolant lines. The turbo bearings need proper lubrication. The compressor and turbine wheels should be checked for any cracks or debris buildup.
Can turbos be used on diesel engines?
Yes, diesels commonly use turbochargers and the engine’s high exhaust temperatures are well suited to spinning the turbine. Many heavy-duty diesel engines are twin-turbocharged for more power.