When people talk about race cars or high-performance sports cars, the topic of turbochargers usually comes up. Turbochargers also appear on large diesel engines. A turbo can significantly boost an engine's horsepower without significantly increasing its weight, which is the huge benefit that makes turbos so popular!
In this article, we'll learn how a turbocharger increases the power output of an engine while surviving extreme operating conditions. We'll also learn how wastegates, ceramic turbine blades and ball bearings help turbochargers do their job even better. Turbochargers are a type of forced induction system. They compress the air flowing into the engine (see How Car Engines Work for a description of airflow in a normal engine). The advantage of compressing the air is that it lets the engine squeeze more air into a cylinder, and more air means that more fuel can be added. Therefore, you get more power from each explosion in each cylinder. A turbocharged engine produces more power overall than the same engine without the charging. This can significantly improve the power-to-weight ratio for the engine (see How Horsepower Works for details).
Turbochargers and EnginesOne of the surest ways to get more power out of an engine is to increase the amount of air and fuel that it can burn. One way to do this is to add cylinders or make the current cylinders bigger. Sometimes these changes may not be feasible -- a turbo can be a simpler, more compact way to add power, especially for an aftermarket accessory.
Turbochargers allow an engine to burn more fuel and air by packing more into the existing cylinders. The typical boost provided by a turbocharger is 6 to 8 pounds per square inch (psi). Since normal atmospheric pressure is 14.7 psi at sea level, you can see that you are getting about 50 percent more air into the engine. Therefore, you would expect to get 50 percent more power. It's not perfectly efficient, so you might get a 30- to 40-percent improvement instead.
The turbocharger is bolted to the exhaust manifold of the engine. The exhaust from the cylinders spins the turbine, which works like a gas turbine engine. The turbine is connected by a shaft to the compressor, which is located between the air filter and the intake manifold. The compressor pressurizes the air going into the pistons.
Inside a turbocharger
Image courtesy Garrett
Turbocharger PartsOne of the main problems with turbochargers is that they do not provide an immediate power boost when you step on the gas. It takes a second for the turbine to get up to speed before boost is produced. This results in a feeling of lag when you step on the gas, and then the car lunges ahead when the turbo gets moving.
One way to decrease turbo lag is to reduce the inertia of the rotating parts, mainly by reducing their weight. This allows the turbine and compressor to accelerate quickly, and start providing boost earlier. One sure way to reduce the inertia of the turbine and compressor is to make the turbocharger smaller. A small turbocharger will provide boost more quickly and at lower engine speeds, but may not be able to provide much boost at higher engine speeds when a really large volume of air is going into the engine. It is also in danger of spinning too quickly at higher engine speeds, when lots of exhaust is passing through the turbine.
Using Two Turbochargers & More Turbo PartsSome engines use two turbochargers of different sizes. The smaller one spins up to speed very quickly, reducing lag, while the bigger one takes over at higher engine speeds to provide more boost.
When air is compressed, it heats up; and when air heats up, it expands. So some of the pressure increase from a turbocharger is the result of heating the air before it goes into the engine. In order to increase the power of the engine, the goal is to get more air molecules into the cylinder, not necessarily more air pressure.