How Turbochargers Work

By: Karim Nice & Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 

turbocharger
Turbochargers can increase your car's horsepower without adding any weight. But how do they do it? Iaroslav Neliubov/Shutterstock

For decades, turbochargers were prized for their ability to boost horsepower, which made them popular for race cars or high-performance sports cars. But modern turbos also can boost fuel economy along with horsepower, making smaller engines more efficient and still capable of highway speeds.

But just how does a turbocharger increase the power output of an engine and its efficiency?

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Turbochargers are a type of forced induction system that compresses the air flowing into the car's 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 size engine without the charging. This can significantly improve the power-to-weight ratio for the engine. This also means that a smaller engine can produce higher horsepower more efficiently, which means fewer stops at the gas station.

In order to achieve this boost, the turbocharger uses the exhaust flow from the engine to spin a turbine, which in turn spins an air pump. The turbine in the turbocharger usually spins at speeds between 80,000 and 200,000 rotations per minute (rpm) — that's up to 30 times faster than most car engines can go. And since it is hooked up to the exhaust, the turbine also runs at very high temperatures.

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Turbochargers and Engines

Turbocharger
Adding a turbocharger to the engine of your car could increase its horsepower by allowing it to burn more fuel and air. Guitar Studio/Shutterstock

One 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.

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One cause of the inefficiency comes from the fact that the power to spin the turbine is not free. Having a turbine in the exhaust flow increases the restriction in the exhaust. This means that on the exhaust stroke, the engine has to push against a higher backpressure. This subtracts a little bit of power from the cylinders that are firing at the same time.

Turbocharger Design

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.

The exhaust from the cylinders passes through the turbine blades, causing the turbine to spin. The more exhaust that goes through the blades, the faster they spin.

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On the other end of the shaft that the turbine is attached to, the compressor pumps air into the cylinders. The compressor is a type of centrifugal pump — it draws air in at the center of its blades and flings it outward as it spins.

turbo gif
This animation shows how air flows through the exhaust manifold, into the turbine, through the exhaust wheel and shaft, through the compressor sections into the air intake manifold and out through the turbo housing.
Tyroola/Wikimedia

In order to handle speeds of up to 200,000 rpm, the turbine shaft must be supported very carefully. Most bearings would explode at speeds like this, so most turbochargers use a fluid or hydrodynamic bearing. This type of bearing supports the shaft on a thin layer of oil that is constantly pumped around the shaft. This serves two purposes: It cools the shaft and some of the other turbocharger parts, and it allows the shaft to spin without much friction.

But you can have too much boost. With air being pumped into the cylinders under pressure by the turbocharger, and then being further compressed by the piston, there is more danger of knock. Knocking happens because as you compress air, the temperature of the air increases. The temperature may increase enough to ignite the fuel before the spark plug fires. Cars with turbochargers often need to run on higher octane fuel to avoid knock. If the boost pressure is really high, the compression ratio of the engine may have to be reduced to avoid knocking.

The turbo system may also use an intercooler between the turbocharger and the cylinder. This cools the air before it reaches the combustion chamber, reducing the possibility of knock.

There are many trade-offs involved in designing a turbocharger for an engine. In the next section, we'll look at some of these compromises and see how they affect performance.

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Turbocharger Parts

Turbocharger part
Turbochargers use the exhaust flow from the engine to spin a turbine, like this one, which in turn spins an air pump. Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

One 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.

Most automotive turbochargers have a wastegate, which allows the use of a smaller turbocharger to reduce lag while preventing it from spinning too quickly at high engine speeds. The wastegate is a valve that allows the exhaust to bypass the turbine blades. The wastegate senses the boost pressure. If the pressure gets too high, it could be an indicator that the turbine is spinning too quickly, so the wastegate bypasses some of the exhaust around the turbine blades, allowing the blades to slow down.

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Some turbochargers use ball bearings instead of fluid bearings to support the turbine shaft. But these are not your regular ball bearings. They're super-precise bearings made of advanced materials to handle the speeds and temperatures of the turbocharger. They allow the turbine shaft to spin with less friction than the fluid bearings used in most turbochargers. They also allow a slightly smaller, lighter shaft to be used. This helps the turbocharger accelerate more quickly, further reducing turbo lag.

Using Two Turbochargers & More Turbo Parts

Some 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.

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An intercooler or charge air cooler is an additional component that looks something like a radiator, except air passes through the inside as well as the outside of the intercooler. The intake air passes through sealed passageways inside the cooler, while cooler air from outside is blown across fins by the engine cooling fan.

The intercooler further increases the power of the engine by cooling the pressurized air coming out of the compressor before it goes into the engine. This means that if the turbocharger is operating at a boost of 7 psi, the intercooled system will put in 7 psi of cooler air, which is denser and contains more air molecules than warmer air.

A turbocharger also helps at high altitudes, where the air is less dense. Normal engines will experience reduced power at high altitudes because for each stroke of the piston, the engine will get a smaller mass of air. A turbocharged engine may also have reduced power, but the reduction will be less dramatic because the turbo's air compression abilities will offset most of the effects of the thinner air.

The fuel-injection systems in today's cars rely on oxygen sensors in the exhaust to determine if the air-to-fuel ratio is correct, so they will automatically increase the fuel flow if a turbo is added. If a turbocharger with too much boost is added to a fuel-injected car, the system may not provide enough fuel. Either the software programmed into the controller will not allow it, or the pump and injectors are not capable of supplying it. In this case, other modifications will have to be made to get the maximum benefit from the turbocharger.

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Originally Published: Dec 4, 2000

Turbocharger FAQ

What is the difference between a turbocharger and a supercharger?
Superchargers tend to be driven by power taken from the crankshaft while a turbocharger is a type of supercharger powered by a turbine in the exhaust stream.
How much horsepower does a turbocharger add?
A turbo can boost an engine's horsepower by 30 to 40 percent or approximately 70 to 150 HP.
Is a turbocharger bad for your engine?
A turbocharger adds the danger of knocking, as when you compress air, the temperature increases, which can damage the engine if you don't reduce the compression ratio.
What is the best turbocharger brand?
It's best to do your own research or visit a garage close to you to discuss your options.
How much does a turbocharger cost?
The price of a turbocharger is closely tied to the make and model of the vehicle, with smaller cars generally costing less than larger trucks. However, it's normal to spend anywhere from $1,500-$7,500 on an aftermarket turbo, in part because this complicated process should only be done by a professional, therefore adding labor costs.

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