Hit the Gas in Your Automotive Technology Program with This Guide to Turbochargers

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Although turbochargers first raced into the automotive scene in high-performance sports cars, they were soon adopted by auto manufacturers looking to increase fuel economy in smaller engines, and today are fairly common to see under the hood of many mass-produced cars.

Turbochargers became prevalent quickly because, like any good tool, they did their job well, boosting an engine’s speed and reducing its fuel consumption. By relying on atmospheric pressure, variable geometry, and the natural flow of exhaust through an engine, the turbocharger parked itself into a reputation for being a reliable, consistent means of ensuring engine performance. Let’s learn more about what makes the turbocharger so special.

History of Automotive Turbochargers for Students in an Automotive Technology Program

The first patent for the turbocharger was introduced in 1905 by the Swiss engineer Alfred Büchi, and it was soon put to use in locomotives and diesel ships. The turbocharger began appearing in automotive production lines in 1962, but became more prevalent in the automotive world after the 1974 Paris Auto Show, with the display of the Porsche 911Turbo, familiar to students in an automotive technology course as the fastest car in the world at the time, and the first production sports car with an exhaust turbocharger. Between 1977 and 1989, the need for speed saw manufacturers turn to the turbocharger to get their cars first across the finish line.

How Turbocharging Works

As students in an automotive technology program might know, when an engine uses fuel, cylindrical pistons work to turn a central crankshaft in the same way your legs would work to pedal a bicycle. This motion then turns the wheels of the vehicle, and the burned gases used in the engine become exhaust.

A turbocharger contains two powerful fans that improve air flow
A turbocharger contains two powerful fans that improve air flow

Essentially, a turbocharger works as an air pump, adding extra oxygen to burn more fuel and therefore generate more power. Where a non-turbocharged engine—known as naturally-aspirated—uses an intake valve to add in air to the engine, a turbocharger takes in the exhaust gases and pressurizes it with two fans to boost the amount of air forced into the engine. These fans can spin as fast as 250,000 revolutions per minute in order to properly direct the incoming exhaust. Variable geometry can further automatically divert the gas flow into the turbine fan, depending on the operating speed of the engine and its power threshold.

Turbochargers Today

Today, turbochargers are fairly common in both diesel and gasoline-powered cars because it increases the power output of an engine as well as the vehicle’s overall fuel efficiency with a smaller displacement engine. Some vehicles such as motorcycles and motorbikes, however, rarely feature turbochargers, partially because other engine models offer similar torque and power benefits.

Although it was once far more noticeable in older cars, turbochargers do still produce what’s known as turbo lag, which is a time delay between when you put your foot to the petal and when the car accelerates. In order to combat this, the turbines often feature lightweight material such as ceramics, which need less force to spin.

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