Turbo Charger  |  Discussion forums Glossary of motoring terms


Turbocharger is an exhaust gas-driven compressor used to increase the power output of an internal-combustion engine by compressing air that is entering the engine thus increasing the amount of available oxygen. A key advantage of turbochargers is that they offer a considerable increase in engine power with only a slight increase in weight.

Principle of operation

A turbocharger is a dynamic compressor, in which air or gas is compressed by the mechanical action of impellers, vaned rotors which are spun using the kinetic movement of air, imparting velocity and pressure to the flowing medium. The mechanical concept of a turbocharger revolves around three main parts. A turbine is driven by the exhaust gas from a pump, most often an internal combustion engine, to spin the second main part, an impeller whose function is to force more air into the pump's intake, or air supply. The third basic part is a center hub rotating assembly (CHRA) which contains bearing, lubrication, cooling, and a shaft that directly connects the turbine and impeller. The shaft, bearing, impeller, and turbine can rotate at speeds in the tens or hundreds of thousands of RPM (revolutions per minute).

The lubrication system can be either a closed system or be fed from the engine's oil supply. The lubrication system may double as the cooling system, or separate coolant may be pumped through the center housing from an outside source. An oil lubrication and water cooling system using engine oil and engine coolant are commonplace in automotive applications.

The turbine and impeller are each contained within their own folded conical housing on opposite sides of the center hub rotating assembly. These housings collect and direct the gas flow. The size and shape can dictate some performance characteristics of the overall turbocharger. The area of the cone to radius from center hub is expressed as a ratio (AR, A/R, or A:R). Often the same basic turbocharger assembly will be available from the manufacturer with multiple AR choices for the turbine housing and sometimes the compressor cover as well. This allows the designer of the engine system to tailor the compromises between performance, response, and efficiency to application or preference. Both housings resemble snail shells, and thus turbochargers are sometimes referred to in slang as snails.

By spinning at a relatively high speed the compressor turbine draws in a large volume of air and forces it into the engine. As the turbocharger's output flow volume exceeds the engine's volumetric flow, air pressure in the intake system begins to build, often called boost. The speed at which the assembly spins is proportional to the pressure of the compressed air and total mass of air flow being moved. Since a turbo will spin to RPMs far beyond what is needed or of what it is mechanically capable of, the speed must be controlled, and thus is also the property used to set the desired compression pressure. A wastegate is the most common mechanical control system, and is often further augmented by an electronic boost controller.

The implementation of a turbocharger is to improve upon the size to output efficiency of an engine by solving for one of its cardinal limitations. A naturally aspirated automobile engine uses only the downward stroke of a piston to create an area of low pressure in order to draw air into the cylinder. Since the number of air and fuel molecules determine the potential energy available to force the piston down on the combustion stroke, and because of the relatively constant pressure of the atmosphere, there ultimately will be a limit to the amount of air and consequently fuel filling the combustion chamber. This ability to fill the cylinder with air is its volumetric efficiency. Since the turbocharger increases the pressure at the point where air is entering the cylinder, and the amount of air brought into the cylinder is largely a function of time and pressure, more air will be drawn in as the pressure increases. The intake pressure, in the absence of the turbocharger determined by the atmosphere, can be controllably increased with the turbocharger.

The application of a compressor to increase pressure at the point of cylinder air intake is often referred to as forced induction. Centrifugal superchargers operate in the same fashion as a turbo; however, the energy to spin the compressor is taken from the rotating output energy of the engine's crankshaft as opposed to exhaust gas. For this reason turbochargers are ideally more efficient, since their turbines are actually heat engines, converting some of the heat energy from the exhaust gas that would otherwise be wasted, into useful work. Superchargers use output energy to achieve a net gain, which is at the expense of some of the engine's total output.

Fuel efficiency

Since a turbocharger increases the specific horsepower output of an engine, the engine will also produce increased amounts of waste heat. This can sometimes be a problem when fitting a turbocharger to a car that was not designed to cope with high heat loads. This extra waste heat combined with the lower compression ratio of turbocharged engines contributes to slightly lower thermal efficiency, which has a small but direct impact on overall fuel efficiency.

It is another form of cooling that has the largest impact on fuel efficiency: charge cooling. Even with the benefits of intercooling, the total compression in the combustion chamber is greater than that in a naturally-aspirated engine. To avoid knock while still extracting maximum power from the engine, it is common practice to introduce extra fuel into the charge for the sole purpose of cooling. While this seems counterintuitive, this fuel is not burned. Instead, it absorbs and carries away heat when it changes phase from liquid to gas. Also, because it is more dense than the other inert substance in the combustion chamber, nitrogen, it has a higher specific heat and more heat capacitance. It "holds" this heat until it is released in the exhaust stream, preventing destructive knock. This thermodynamic property allows manufacturers to achieve good power output with common pump fuel at the expense of fuel economy and emissions. The optimum Air-to-Fuel ratio (A/F) for complete combustion of gasoline is 14.7:1. A common A/F in a turbocharged engine while under full design boost is typically 12:1.

Lastly, the efficiency of the turbocharger itself can have an impact on fuel efficiency. Using a small turbocharger will give good response and low lag at low to mid RPMs, but can choke the engine on the exhaust side and generate huge amounts of pumping-related heat on the intake side as RPMs rise. A large turbocharger will be very efficient at high RPMs, but is not a realistic application for a street driven automobile. Variable vane and ball bearing technologies can make a turbo more efficient across a wider operating range, however, other problems have prevented this technology from appearing in more road cars. Currently, the Porsche 911 (997) Turbo is the only gasoline cars in production with this kind of turbocharger. One way to take advantage of the different operating regimes of the two types of supercharger is sequential turbocharging, which uses a small turbocharger at low RPMs and a larger one at high RPMs.

The engine management systems of most modern vehicles can control boost and fuel delivery according to charge temperature, fuel quality, and altitude, among other factors. Some systems are more sophisticated and aim to deliver fuel even more precisely based on combustion quality. For example, the Trionic-7 system from Saab Automobile provides immediate feedback on the combustion while it is occurring using an electrical charge.

The new 2.0L FSI turbo engine from Volkswagen/Audi incorporates lean burn and direct injection technology to conserve fuel under low load conditions. It is a very complex system that involves many moving parts and sensors in order to manage airflow characteristics inside the chamber itself, allowing it to use a stratified charge with excellent atomization. The direct injection also has a tremendous charge cooling effect enabling this engine to use a higher compression ratio and boost pressures than a typical port-injection turbo engine.

Design details

A turbo spins very fast; most peak between 80,000 and 200,000 RPM (using low inertia turbos, 150,000-250,000 RPM) depending on size, weight of the rotating parts, boost pressure developed and compressor design. Such high rotation speeds would cause problems for standard ball bearings leading to failure so most turbo-chargers use fluid bearings. These feature a flowing layer of oil that suspends and cools the moving parts. The oil is usually taken from the engine-oil circuit and usually needs to be cooled by an oil cooler before it circulates through the engine. Some turbochargers use incredibly precise ball bearings that offer less friction than a fluid bearing but these are also suspended in fluid-dampened cavities. Lower friction means the turbo shaft can be made of lighter materials, reducing so-called turbo lag or boost lag. Some car makers use water cooled turbochargers for added bearing life.

To manage the upper-deck air pressure, the turbocharger's exhaust gas flow is regulated with a wastegate that bypasses excess exhaust gas entering the turbocharger's turbine. This regulates the rotational speed of the turbine and the output of the compressor. The wastegate is opened and closed by the compressed air from turbo (the upper-deck pressure) and can be raised by using a solenoid to regulate the pressure fed to the wastegate membrane. This solenoid can be controlled by Automatic Performance Control, the engine's electronic control unit or an after market boost control computer. Another method of raising the boost pressure is through the use of check and bleed valves to keep the pressure at the membrane lower than the pressure within the system.

Some turbochargers utilise a set of vanes in the exhaust housing to maintain a constant gas velocity across the turbine, the same kind of control as used on power plant turbines. These turbochargers have minimal amount of lag, have a low boost threshold, and are very efficient at higher engine speeds. In many setups these turbos don't even need a wastegate. The vanes are controlled by a membrane identical to the one on a wastegate but the level of control required is a bit different. The first production car to use these turbos was the limited-production 1989 Shelby CSX-VNT, equipped with a 2.2L petrol engine. The Shelby CSX-VNT utilised a turbo from Garrett, called the VNT-25 because it uses the same compressor and shaft as the more common Garrett T-25. This type of turbine is called a Variable Nozzle Turbine (VNT). Turbocharger manufacturer Aerocharger uses the term 'Variable Area Turbine Nozzle' (VATN) to describe this type of turbine nozzle. Other common terms include Variable Turbine Geometry (VTG), Variable Geometry Turbo (VGT) and Variable Vane Turbine (VVT).

The 2006 Porsche 911 Turbo has a twin turbocharged 3.6-litre flat six, and the turbos used are BorgWarner's Variable Geometry Turbos (VGTs). This is significant because although VGTs have been used on advanced diesel engines for a few years and on the Shelby CSX-VNT, this is the first time the technology has been implemented on a high production petrol car (only 500 Shelby CSX-VNTs were produced) . This is because in petrol cars exhaust temperatures are much higher (than in diesel cars), and this normally has adverse effects on the delicate, moveable vanes of the turbo. Porsche engineers claim to have managed this problem with the new 911 Turbo.


As long as the oil supply is clean and the exhaust gas does not become overheated (lean mixtures or advanced spark timing on a gasoline engine) a turbocharger can be very reliable but care of the unit is important. Replacing a turbo that lets go and sheds its blades will be expensive. The use of synthetic oils is recommended in turbo engines.

After high speed operation of the engine it is important to let the engine run at idle speed for around one to three minutes before turning off the engine. For example Saab, in its owner manuals, recommends a period of just 30 seconds. This lets the turbo rotating assembly cool from the lower exhaust gas temperatures. Not doing this will also result in the critical oil supply to the turbocharger being severed when the engine stops while the turbine housing and exhaust manifold are still very hot, leading to coking of the lubricating oil trapped in the unit when the heat soaks into the bearings and later, failure of the supply of oil when the engine is next started causing rapid bearing wear and failure. Even small particles of burnt oil will accumulate and lead to choking the oil supply and failure. A turbo timer is a device designed to keep an automotive engine running for a pre-specified period of time, in order to execute this cool-down period automatically. Oil coking is completely eliminated by foil bearings. This problem is less pronounced with turbochargers used in diesel engines, due to the lower exhaust temperatures and generally slower engine speeds. It is usual for the manufacturer to specify a 10-second period of idling before switching off to ensure the turbocharger is running at its idle speed to prevent damage to the bearings when the oil supply is cut off.

A more complex and problematic protective barrier against oil coking is the use of water-cooled bearing cartridges. The water boils in the cartridge when the engine is shut off and forms a natural recirculation to drain away the heat. It is still a good idea to not shut the engine off while the turbo and manifold are still glowing.

In custom applications utilising tubular headers rather than cast iron manifolds, the need for a cooldown period is reduced because the lighter headers store much less heat than heavy cast iron manifolds. Diesel engines are usually much kinder to turbos because their exhaust gas temperature is much lower than that of gasoline engines.

Turbo Lag

A lag is sometimes felt by the driver of a turbocharged vehicle as a delay between pushing on the accelerator pedal and feeling the turbo kick-in. This is symptomatic of the time taken for the exhaust system driving the turbine to come to high pressure and for the turbine rotor to overcome its rotational inertia and reach the speed necessary to supply boost pressure. The directly-driven compressor in a positive-displacement supercharger does not suffer this problem. (Centrifugal superchargers do not build boost at low RPMs like a positive displacement supercharger will). Conversely on light loads or at low RPM a turbocharger supplies less boost and the engine is more efficient than a supercharged engine.

Lag can be reduced by lowering the rotational inertia of the turbine, for example by using lighter parts to allow the spool-up to happen more quickly. Ceramic turbines are a big help in this direction. Unfortunately, their relative fragility limits the maximum boost they can supply. Another way to reduce lag is to change the aspect ratio of the turbine by reducing the diameter and increasing the gas-flow path-length. Increasing the upper-deck air pressure and improving the wastegate response helps but there are cost increases and reliability disadvantages that car manufacturers are not happy about. Lag is also reduced by using a foil bearing rather than a conventional oil bearing. This reduces friction and contributes to faster acceleration of the turbo's rotating assembly.

Another common method of equalizing turbo lag is to have the turbine wheel "clipped", or to reduce the surface area of the turbine wheel's rotating blades. By clipping a minute portion off the tip of each blade of the turbine wheel, less restriction is imposed upon the escaping exhaust gases. This imparts less impedance onto the flow of exhaust gases at low RPM, allowing the vehicle to retain more of its low-end torque, but also pushes the effective boost RPM to a slightly higher level. The amount a turbine wheel is and can be clipped is highly application-specific. Turbine clipping is measured and specified in degrees.

Other setups, most notably in V-type engines, utilize two identically-sized but smaller turbos, each fed by a separate set of exhaust streams from the engine. The two smaller turbos produce the same (or more) aggregate amount of boost as a larger single turbo, but since they are smaller they reach their optimal RPM, and thus optimal boost delivery, faster. Such an arrangement of turbos is typically referred to as a parallel twin-turbo system.

Some car makers combat lag by using two small turbos. A typical arrangement for this is to have one turbo active across the entire rev range of the engine and one coming on-line at higher RPM. Early designs would have one turbocharger active up to a certain RPM, after which both turbochargers are active. Below this RPM, both exhaust and air inlet of the secondary turbo are closed. Being individually smaller they do not suffer from excessive lag and having the second turbo operating at a higher RPM range allows it to get to full rotational speed before it is required. Such combinations are referred to as a sequential twin-turbo. Sequential twin-turbos are usually much more complicated than a single or parallel twin-turbo systems because they require what amounts to three sets of pipes-intake and wastegate pipes for the two turbochargers as well as valves to control the direction of the exhaust gases. An example of this is the current BMW E60 5-Series 535d. Many new diesel engines use this technology to not only eliminate lag but also to reduce fuel consumption and produce cleaner emissions.

Lag is not to be confused with the boost threshold; however, many publications still make this basic mistake. The boost threshold of a turbo system describes the minimum turbo RPM at which the turbo is physically able to supply the requested boost level [citation needed]. Newer turbocharger and engine developments have caused boost thresholds to steadily decline to where day-to-day use feels perfectly natural. Putting your foot down at 1200 engine RPM and having no boost until 2000 engine RPM is an example of boost threshold and not lag.

Race cars often utilise anti-lag to completely eliminate lag at the cost of reduced turbocharger life. On modern diesel engines, this problem is virtually eliminated by utilising a variable geometry turbocharger.

Turbo Boost

Boost refers to the increase in manifold pressure that is generated by the turbocharger in the intake path or specifically intake manifold that exceeds normal atmospheric pressure. This is also the level of boost as shown on a pressure gauge, usually in bar, psi or possibly kPa This is representative of the extra air pressure that is achieved over what would be achieved without the forced induction. Manifold pressure should not be confused with the amount, or "weight" of air that a turbo can flow.

Boost pressure is limited to keep the entire engine system including the turbo inside its design operating range by controlling the wastegate which shunts the exhaust gases away from the exhaust side turbine. In some cars the maximum boost depends on the fuel's octane rating and is electronically regulated using a knock sensor, see Automatic Performance Control (APC).

Many diesel engines do not have any wastegate because the amount of exhaust energy is controlled directly by the amount of fuel injected into the engine and slight variations in boost pressure do not make a difference for the engine.

Turbo-Alternator is a form of turbocharger that generates electricity instead of boosting engine's air flow. On September 21, 2005, Foresight Vehicle announced the first known implementation of such unit for automobiles, under the name TIGERS (Turbo-generator Integrated Gas Energy Recovery System).

Above text originally from  This text is available under GPL.

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