How Does A Turbo Work: Your Ultimate Guide

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A turbo charger is a way to increase power on a combustion engine. This design takes exhaust from the rear of the engine and delivers it to the front which offers an increase in power. How does a turbo work to utilize the exhaust from a mixture of hot gases from your car's engine? The engine takes the waste and turns it into a method of increasing the speed of your car.

In order to power an engine, fuel is burned in the cylinders. Air and fuel mix creating a small explosion that drives the pistons. This turns the gears and shafts that make your car move. The piston returns to its original position and produces exhaust from the fuel and air waste. The power of your car is related to how quickly the fuel burns. Having larger and more cylinders will burn more fuel and make your car go faster. Adding cylinders increases the speed of your car. Sports cars and fast cars have 6 to 8 cylinders. Another way to increase speed is to turbocharge your car. This will increase the air into the cylinder so that they will burn fuel faster. It is a relatively inexpensive option that will increase the power of your engine.

What Is A Turbocharger?

How does a turbo work? In practice it is done by two small gas pumps, impellers, or air fans that sit on a metal shaft and spin together. One of the fans is a turbine and is located in the exhaust stream coming from the cylinders. As they blow out hot gas past these fans, they will rotate and the shaft they are on, called the center hub rotating assembly (CHRA) will also rotate. The other fan is a compressor, and it spins as well. It is on the side where the car's intake is located. As it spins, it draws in air and forces it into the cylinders. The output from the compressor is passed over a heat exchanger to cool it off.

Who Invented The Turbo?

Alfred J. Buchi (1879-1959) was the engineer that we can thank for answering the question "How does a turbo work?" He was employed by Gebruder Sulzer Engine Company of Winterthur, Switzerland. His original design was developed before WWI and was patented in 1905 in Germany. He continued refining and working on the question of how does a turbo work until his death.

But he wasn't the only one who contributed to the understanding of how does a turbo work. Before him, Sir Dugald Clark (1854-1932) from Scotland invented the two-stroke engine. He experimented with the separation of the expansion stages and compression in the internal combustion engine using the two cylinders. This was a type of supercharging and increased the amount of fuel burned and air flow into the cylinder.

Other engineers who helped figure out how does a turbo work include Lee Chadwick, Gottlieb Daimler, and Louis Renault. Their experiments included supercharging engines.

Pros And Cons Of A Turbocharger

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It sounds like everyone should have a turbocharger on their car. You could go faster and you would be utilizing your car's own exhaust to do it. But there are pros and cons to consider. A turbocharger can be used on either diesel or gas engines and on any vehicle such as a bus, ship, truck, or car. The advantage would be that you would get more power for the same size engine. Every cylinder and piston would generate more power than it standardly would. More power means more energy means more fuel is needed.

An engine with a turbocharger is not necessarily more fuel efficient than one without one, but it will offer more fuel economy in that an engine fitted with a turbocharger is lighter and smaller. Manufacturers can fit a smaller engine into their cars. Instead of a V8 you could get a turbo-charged V6. Or you could get a turbo-charged four-cylinder instead of a V6. They may save up to 10% on fuel. They burn fuel with more air; burning it cleaner and more completely, hence producing less pollution in the air.

So why aren't all vehicles turbo-charged?  This is because fuel economy didn't turn out to be as advertised by manufacturers. In a study from 2013 in Consumer Reports they found that the small turbo-charged engines had much worse fuel economy than a normal engine. Reliability was also a problem with them because of the added mechanical component. There are many things that could fail, making maintenance expensive.

The turbocharger also puts more stress on the engine and many components suffer from high temperatures and pressures which can cause parts to fail. This is why a turbo-charged engine's life is shorter than a normal engine. Driving them is also a different experience in that there is a delay in acceleration when the turbo kicks in and that can make them tricky to operate.

How Does A Turbo Work?

A turbocharger on a car works by using its own exhaust to power a turbine. This causes an air compressor to spin which pushes oxygen and extra air into the car's cylinders. This allows the cylinders to burn more fuel faster. A turbo-charged vehicle produces more power, or more energy every second. A supercharger is similar, but instead it is powered by the crankshaft. The supercharger steals energy from the car and the turbocharger utilizes wasted exhaust. This is essentially the process:

  1. 1
    Cool air comes into the engine from the intake and goes to the compressor.
  2. 2
    The compressor fan sucks in the air.
  3. 3
    The compressor heats up, squeezes the air, and then blow it out.
  4. 4
    This compressed, hot air is then passed through a heat exchanger to cool it down.
  5. 5
    The cooled air enters the air intake of the cylinders using the extra oxygen to increase the fuel burned.
  6. 6
    Energy is produced faster and sends more power to the car's wheels via the gears, shafts, and piston.
  7. 7
    The exhaust outlet gets rid of the waste gas from the cylinder.
  8. 8
    These hot gases make the turbine fan rotate at a high speed as the exhaust blows past them.
  9. 9
    The turbine is on the same shaft as the compressor; as it spins so does the compressor.
  10. 10
    Less energy is wasted as the exhaust exits the car.

Where Does The Extra Power Come From?

A turbocharger enables a combustion engine to burn fuel faster making the car faster but not draining power from the engine. The exhaust gas from the engine powers the turbocharger. Knowing how does a turbo work will explain the concepts of how this harnessed energy in the car's exhaust drives the turbo's compressor.

How Much Power Can You Get?

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You would think that a bigger turbocharger would give you more power. But there is a limit to how much power you can harness. Car cylinders are the limitation and they only burn a certain amount of fuel. There is also a limit of how much air can be forced into them. The amount of exhaust gas that is expelled is also limited. There are many limiting factors in how much energy you can get from a turbocharger that you must take into account. The answer is, you are limited only by the number of cylinders you have in your car. The more the better!

How To Install A Turbocharger

If you are adding a turbocharger to your car, you have to make sure to find a mechanic who knows what they are doing. Even the smallest mistake in installation will render it useless and could damage your engine. If you install the wrong one it could result in engine failure. Your mechanic should modify your engine based on the fuel to oxygen ratio.

A turbocharger is rated based on the amount of air it delivers in pounds per square inch (PSI.) Most vehicles are tuned between 5 to 7 PSI. If they are tuned between 8 and 12 PSI your engine will need custom pistons and a heavy-duty drive train. Anything over 12 PSI will need a complete modification to avoid damaging the engine block and other components.

The turbocharger can wear the engine if it is improperly installed or not properly operated. You will also need an intercooler to decrease the heat it produces, which adds another expense.


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Finding out how does a turbo work is a very interesting topic. It's amazing that it was discovered in the 1800's and has been improved upon for decades. Today there are turbo options when you purchase a car. You need to understand what this means for the life of your engine and the driving experience it offers.

In the 1970s cars were created that would offer better fuel economy due to the energy crisis. Engines got smaller and more people wanted a turbo-charged vehicle. A smaller engine with better fuel economy that was faster is an easy sell. But the engines proved to be unreliable and their popularity faded. They are once again becoming popular with new technologies in place. 

Turbochargers are considered racing equipment and may increase your insurance rates as a result. They are not for everyone, but they are great for those who understand the pros and cons. Just make sure to find a mechanic that can install it properly or buy a car with this option already available for you to enjoy.