How turbochargers work
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: January 6, 2020.
There's no such thing as a perfect invention: we can always make something better, cheaper,
more efficient, or more environmentally friendly. Take the internal
combustion engine. You might think it's remarkable that a machine
powered by liquid can hurl you down the highway or speed you through
the sky many times faster than you could otherwise travel. But it's always
possible to build an engine that will go faster, further, or use less
fuel. One way to improve an engine is to use a turbocharger—a
pair of fans that harness waste exhaust power from the back of an engine to cram more
air into the front, delivering more "oomph" than you'd otherwise
get. We've all heard of turbos, but how exactly do they work? Let's
take a closer look!
Photo: A typical automobile turbocharger uses a pair of snail-shaped fans, like this. The one you see here is a Garrett GT2871R, just about to be fitted to the engine of a Pontiac G8. Photo by Ryan C. Delcore courtesy of US Navy.
What is a turbocharger?
Photo: Two views of an oil-free turbocharger developed by NASA. Photo courtesy of
NASA Glenn Research Center (NASA-GRC).
Have you ever watched cars buzzing past you with sooty fumes streaming from their tailpipe?
It's obvious exhaust fumes cause air pollution, but it's much less
apparent that they're wasting energy at the same time. The exhaust is
a mixture of hot gases pumping out at speed and all the energy it
contains—the heat and the motion (kinetic energy)—is disappearing
uselessly into the atmosphere. Wouldn't it be neat if the engine
could harness that waste power somehow to make the car go faster?
That's exactly what a turbocharger does.
Car engines make power by burning fuel in sturdy metal cans called cylinders. Air enters
each cylinder, mixes with fuel, and burns to make a small explosion
that drives a piston out, turning the shafts and gears that spin the
car's wheels. When the piston pushes back in, it pumps the waste air
and fuel mixture out of the cylinder as exhaust. The amount of power
a car can produce is directly related to how fast it burns fuel. The
more cylinders you have and the bigger they are, the more fuel the
car can burn each second and (theoretically at least) the faster it
One way to make a car go faster is to add more cylinders. That's why super-fast sports cars
typically have eight and twelve cylinders instead of the four or six
cylinders in a conventional family car. Another option is to use a
turbocharger, which forces more air into the cylinders each second so
they can burn fuel at a faster rate. A turbocharger is a simple, relatively cheap, extra
bit of kit that can get more power from the same engine!
How does a turbocharger work?
If you know how a jet engine works, you're halfway to understanding a car's turbocharger. A
jet engine sucks in cold air at the front, squeezes it into a chamber
where it burns with fuel, and then blasts hot air out of the back. As
the hot air leaves, it roars past a turbine (a bit like a very
compact metal windmill) that drives the compressor (air pump) at the front
of the engine. This is the bit that pushes the air into the engine to
make the fuel burn properly. The turbocharger on a car applies a very
similar principle to a piston engine. It uses the exhaust gas to
drive a turbine. This spins an air compressor that pushes extra air
(and oxygen) into the cylinders, allowing them to burn more fuel each
second. That's why a turbocharged car can produce more power (which
is another way of saying "more energy per second"). A supercharger (or "mechanically driven supercharger" to give it its full name) is very similar to a turbocharger, but instead of being driven by exhaust gases using a turbine, it's powered from the car's spinning crankshaft.
That's usually a disadvantage: where a turbocharger is powered by waste energy in the exhaust, a supercharger actually steals energy from the car's own power source (the crankshaft), which is generally unhelpful.
Photo: The essence of a turbocharger: two gas fans (a turbine and a compressor) mounted on a single shaft. When one turns, the other turns too. Photo courtesy of NASA Glenn Research Center (NASA-GRC).
How does turbocharging work in practice? A turbocharger is effectively two little air fans (also called impellers
or gas pumps) sitting on the same metal shaft so that both spin around
together. One of these fans, called the turbine, sits in the
exhaust stream from the cylinders. As the cylinders blow hot gas past
the fan blades, they rotate and the shaft they're connected to
(technically called the center hub rotating assembly or CHRA)
rotates as well. The second fan is called the compressor and,
since it's sitting on the same shaft as the turbine, it spins too.
It's mounted inside the car's air intake so, as it spins, it draws
air into the car and forces it into the cylinders.
Now there's a slight problem here. If you compress a gas, you make it hotter (that's why a
bicycle pump warms up when you start inflating your tires). Hotter
air is less dense (that's why warm air rises over radiators) and less
effective at helping fuel to burn, so it would be much better if the
air coming from the compressor were cooled before it entered
the cylinders. To cool it down, the output from the compressor passes
over a heat exchanger that removes
the extra heat and channels it elsewhere.
How a turbocharger works—a closer look
The basic idea is that the exhaust drives the turbine (the red fan), which is
directly connected to (and powers) the compressor (the blue fan), which rams air into the engine. For simplicity, we're showing only one cylinder. Here then, in summary, is how the whole thing works:
- Cool air enters the engine's air intake and heads toward the compressor.
- The compressor fan helps to suck air in.
- The compressor squeezes and heats up the incoming air and blows it out again.
- Hot, compressed air from the compressor passes through the heat exchanger, which cools it down.
- Cooled, compressed air enters the cylinder's air intake. The extra oxygen helps to burn fuel in the cylinder at a faster rate.
- Since the cylinder burns more fuel, it produces energy more quickly and can send more power to the wheels via the piston, shafts, and gears.
- Waste gas from the cylinder exits through the exhaust outlet.
- The hot exhaust gases blowing past the turbine fan make it rotate at high speed.
- The spinning turbine is mounted on the same shaft as the compressor (shown here as a pale orange line). So, as the turbine spins, the compressor spins too.
- The exhaust gas leaves the car, wasting less energy than it would otherwise.
In practice, the components could be connected something like this. The turbine (red, right) takes in exhaust air through its intake, driving the compressor (blue, left) that takes in clean outside air and pumps it into the engine. This particular design features an electric cooling system (green) in between the turbine and compressor.
Artwork: How the turbine and compressor are connected in an electrically cooled turbocharger. From US Patent #7,946,118: Cooling an electrically controlled turbocharger by Will Hippen et al, Ecomotors International, granted May 24, 2011. Artwork courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
Where does the extra power come from?
Turbochargers give a car more power, but that extra power is
not coming directly from the waste exhaust gas—and that sometimes confuses people.
With a turbocharger, we harness some of the energy in the exhaust to drive the compressor,
which allows the engine to burn more fuel each second. This extra fuel is where the car's extra power
comes from. All the exhaust gas is doing is powering the turbocharger and,
because the turbocharger isn't connected to the car's crankshaft or wheels, it's not
directly adding to the car's driving power in any way. It's simply enabling the
same engine to burn fuel at a faster rate, so making it more powerful.
How much extra power can you get?
If a turbocharger gives an engine more power, a bigger, better turbocharger will give
it even more power. In theory, you could keep improving your turbocharger
to make your engine more and more powerful, but you will eventually hit a limit.
The cylinders are only so big and there's only so much fuel they can burn.
There's only so much air you can force into them through an inlet of a certain size, and only so much exhaust gas you can expel, which limits the energy you can use to drive your turbocharger.
In other words, there are other limiting factors that come into play that you have to take into
account as well; you can't simply turbocharge your way to infinity!
Advantages and disadvantages of turbochargers
You can use turbochargers with either gasoline or diesel engines and on more or less any
kind of vehicle (car, truck, ship, or bus). The basic advantage of using a turbocharger is that you get more power output
for the same size of engine (every single stroke of the piston, in every single cylinder, generates more power than it would otherwise do). However, more power means more energy output per second, and the law of conservation of energy tells us that means you have to put more energy in as well, so you must burn correspondingly more fuel. In theory, that means an engine with a turbocharger is no more fuel efficient than one without. However, in practice, an engine fitted with a turbocharger is much smaller and lighter than an engine producing the same power without a turbocharger, so a turbocharger car can give better fuel economy in that respect. Manufacturers can often now get away with fitting a much smaller engine to the same car (such as a turbocharged V6 instead of a V8, or a turbocharged four-cylinder engine instead of a V6). And that's where turbocharged cars get their advantage: working well, they might save up to 10 percent of your fuel. Since they burn fuel with more oxygen, they tend to burn it more thoroughly and cleanly, producing less air pollution.
“Most industry experts expect that by 2027, more than half the vehicles sold in the United States will be powered by one.”
The New York Times, 2018
More power for the same engine size sounds wonderful, so why aren't all engines turbocharged? One reason is that the fuel economy benefits promised by early turbochargers didn't always turn out as impressively as manufacturers (eager to seize any marketing advantage over their rivals) liked to claim. One 2013 study, by Consumer Reports, found small turbocharged engines giving significantly worse fuel economy than their "naturally aspirated" (conventional) counterparts and concluded: "Don't take turbocharged engines' eco-boasts at face value. There are better ways to save fuel, including hybrids, diesels, and other advanced technologies." Reliability has often been a problem too: turbochargers add another layer of mechanical complexity to an ordinary engine—in short, there are quite a few more things to go wrong. That can make maintenance of turbos significantly more expensive. By definition, turbocharging is all about getting more from the same basic engine design, and many of the engine components have to suffer higher pressures and temperatures, which can make parts fail sooner; that's why, generally speaking, turbocharged engines don't last as long. Even driving can be different with turbos: since the turbocharger is powered by the exhaust gas, there's often a significant delay ("turbo lag") between when you put your foot on the accelerator and when the turbo kicks in, and that can make turbo cars very different (and sometimes very tricky) to drive.
In the last few years, leading manufacturers such as Garrett and BorgWarner have been busily developing partly or fully electric turbochargers to solve this issue; Garrett's offering is called the E-Turbo and Borg's is the eBooster®.
Who invented the turbocharger?
Whom do we thank for turbochargers? Alfred J. Büchi (1879–1959), an automotive engineer employed by the Gebrüder Sulzer Engine Company of Winterthur, Switzerland. Much like the turbocharger I've illustrated up above, his original design used an exhaust-driven turbine shaft to power a compressor that forced more air into an engine's cylinders. He originally developed the turbocharger in the years before World War I and patented it in Germany in 1905, but continued to work on improved designs until his death four decades later.
Büchi wasn't the only important figure in the story, however. Some years earlier, Sir Dugald Clark (1854–1932), Scottish inventor of the two-stroke engine, had experimented with separating the compression and expansion stages of internal combustion using two separate cylinders. This worked a bit like supercharging, increasing both the air flow into the cylinder and the amount of fuel that could be burned. Other engineers, including Louis Renault, Gottlieb Daimler, and
Lee Chadwick, also experimented successfully with supercharging systems.
Artwork: One of Alfred Büchi's turbocharger designs from the late 1920s (the patent was filed in 1927 and granted in April 1934). I've colored it so you can make sense of it quickly. You can see a single cylinder (yellow) and piston, crank, and connecting rod (red) on the left. Exhaust gas from the cylinder feeds around a pipe (green) that drives a turbine. This is connected to the orange "charging blower" (compressor) and cooler (blue box) that pushes air into the cylinder through the blue pipe. There are various other intricate bits and pieces, but I won't go into all the details; if you're interested, take a look at US Patent #1,955,620: Internal combustion engine (served via Google Patents). Artwork courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
Find out more
On this website
Books for older readers
Books for younger readers
- Car Science by Richard Hammond. Dorling Kindersley, 2007. Explains the science that makes your car work (ages 9–12).
- Garrett E-Turbo promises more power, better efficiency and less lag by Aaron Turpen, New Atlas,
October 20, 2019. The story of Garrett's new electric turbos.
- Turbocharging Jumps From Racetrack to Cul-de-Sac by Stephen Williams. The New York Times, 25 October 2018. How turbochargers became an essential component of the modern car engine.
- A Little Fan That Fixes the Turbocharger's Biggest Problem by Alex Davies. Wired, 24 August 2017. A quick look at BorgWarner's eBooster.
- How Do You Make Turbo Engines More Efficient? Just Add Water by Nick Czap. The New York Times, 29 September 2016. Bosch revives the idea of spraying water into turbocharged cylinders to make them run cooler and less erratically.
- Carmakers Find That Turbos Are a Powerful Path to Fuel Efficiency by Lawrence Ulrich. The New York Times, 26 February 2015. Why manufacturers such as Ford and BMW have been eagerly pushing turbo engines.
- 50 Years Ago, the Turbocharger Was a Disruptive Technology by Jim Koscs. The New York Times, 19 December 2014. How early turbochargers eventually overcame their teething troubles.
- If You Don't Drive a Turbo, You Soon Will by Chuck Squatriglia. Wired, 24 September 2010. The number of cars with turbochargers fitted is expected to double by 2015 as manufacturers seek new ways of getting higher performance from smaller engines.
- Turbo hails its green credentials by Jorn Madslien. BBC News, 11 October 2009. Turbos make cars go faster; they can also make them "greener" by improving fuel consumption.
If you're looking for detailed technical descriptions of how things work, patents are a good place to start. Here
are some recent patents covering turbochargers that are worth checking out:
- US Patent #1,955,620: Internal combustion engine by Alfred J. Büchi, granted April 17, 1934. An early turbo engine designed by the inventor of turbochargers himself.
- US Patent #2,309,968: Turbocharger control and method by Richard J. Lloyd, The Garrett Corporation, granted February 1, 1977. Focuses on a turbocharger control system that works efficiently at different engine speeds.
- US Patent #4,083,188: Engine turbocharger system by Emerson Kumm, The Garrett Corporation, granted April 11, 1978. A modern turbocharger for a low-compression diesel engine.
- US Patent #7,946,118: Cooling an electrically controlled turbocharger by Will Hippen et al, Ecomotors International, granted May 24, 2011. A novel method of cooling a turbocharger.