How a Turbo Works Details and Principles of Design

A turbocharger consists of a turbine and a compressor linked by a shared axis. The turbine inlet receives exhaust gases from the engine exhaust manifold causing the turbine wheel to rotate. This rotation drives the compressor, compressing ambient air and delivering it to the air intake of the engine.

The objective 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 car 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 determines 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 kinetic 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.


The turbocharger has four main components. The turbine and impeller wheels are each contained within their own folded conical housing on opposite sides of the third component, the centre hub rotating assembly (CHRA).

The housings fitted around the compressor impeller and turbine collect and direct the gas flow through the wheels as they spin. The size and shape can dictate some performance characteristics of the overall turbocharger. The area of the cone to radius from centre 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 angry snails.

The turbine and impeller wheel sizes also dictate the amount of air or exhaust that can be flowed through the system, and the relative efficiency at which they operate. Generally, the larger the turbine wheel and compressor wheel, the larger the flow capacity. Measurements and shapes can vary, as well as curvature and number of blades on the wheels.

The centre hub rotating assembly houses the shaft that connects the compressor impeller and turbine. It also must contain a bearing system to suspend the shaft, allowing it to rotate at very high speed with minimal friction. For instance, in automotive applications the CHRA typically uses a thrust bearing or ball bearing lubricated by a constant supply of pressurized engine oil. The CHRA may also be considered "water cooled" by having an entry and exit point for engine coolant to be cycled. Water-cooled models allow engine coolant to be used to keep the lubricating oil cooler, avoiding possible oil coking from the extreme heat found in the turbine.


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.


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 airflow being moved. Since a turbo can spin to RPMs far beyond what is needed, or of what it is safely capable of, the speed must be controlled. A wastegate is the most common mechanical speed control system, and is often further augmented by an electronic boost controller. The main function of a wastegate is to allow some of the exhaust to bypass the turbine when the set intake pressure is achieved.

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 (more specifically, expansion 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 mist to gas vapour. Also, because it is denser 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 petrol is 14.7:1. A common A/F in a turbocharged engine while under full design boost is approximately 12:1. Richer mixtures are sometimes run when the design of the system has flaws in it such as a catalytic converter which has limited endurance of high exhaust temperatures or the engine has a compression ratio that is too high for efficient operation with the fuel given.

Lastly, the efficiency of the turbocharger itself can have an impact on fuel efficiency. Using a small turbocharger will give quick 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 car. 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 (see Variable geometry turbocharger). Currently, the Porsche 911 (997) Turbo is the only petrol car in production with this kind of turbocharger. One way to take advantage of the different operating regimes of the two types of turbocharger 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 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, which enables engines to use higher compression ratios and boost pressures than a typical port-injection turbo engine.

Automotive design details

The ideal gas law states that when all other variables are held constant, if pressure is increased in a system so is the temperature. Here exists one of the negative consequences of turbocharging, the increase in the temperature of air entering the engine due to compression.

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. 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 carmakers use water-cooled turbochargers for added bearing life. This can also account for why many tuners upgrade their standard journal bearing turbos (such as a T25) which use a 270 degree thrust bearing and a brass journal bearing which only has 3 oil passages, to a 360 degree bearing which has a beefier thrust bearing and washer having 6 oil passages to enable better flow, response and cooling efficiency. Turbochargers with foil bearings are in development. These will eliminate the need for bearing cooling or oil delivery systems, thereby eliminating the most common cause of failure, while also significantly reducing turbo lag.

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 (normally called variable geometry 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 (with full boost as low as 1,500 rpm), and are efficient at higher engine speeds; they are also used in diesel engines. [2] In many setups these turbos don't even need a wastegate. A membrane identical to the one on a wastegate controls the vanes 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, in essence a Dodge Shadow 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). A number of other Chrysler Corporation vehicles used this turbocharger in 1990, including the Dodge Daytona and Dodge Shadow. These engines produced 174 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque, the same horsepower as the standard intercooled 2.2 litre engines but with 25 more pound-feet of torque and a faster onset (less turbo lag). However, the Turbo III engine, without a VATN or VNT, produced 224 horsepower. The reasons for Chrysler's not continuing to use variable geometry turbochargers are unknown, but the main reason was probably public desire for V6 engines coupled with increased availability of Chrysler-engineered V6 engines. [3] 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 production petrol car since the 1,250 Dodge engines were produced in 1989-90. Some have argued this is because in petrol cars exhaust temperatures are much higher (than in diesel cars), and this can have adverse effects on the delicate, moveable vanes of the turbocharger; these units are also more expensive than conventional turbochargers. Porsche engineers claim to have managed this problem with the new 911 Turbo.

There is also a type of turbo called centrifugal (or simply belt-driven), this functions in some ways similar to a standard turbo and in some ways similar to a supercharger. Since it's belt driven (no exhaust is used) there is never any lag, however the boost isn't "free" like with a standard turbo. The "cost" is extra drag on the crank, thus a loss in efficiency. The benefits are no lag, easier to setup - since no exhaust modifications are needed, and likely easier maintenance access.


Turbochargers can be damaged by dirty or ineffective oil, and most manufacturers recommend more frequent oil changes for turbocharged engines; many owners and some companies recommend using synthetic oils, which tend to flow more readily when cold and do not break down as quickly as conventional oils. Because the turbocharger can get hot when running, many recommend letting the engine idle for one to three minutes before shutting the engine if the turbocharger was used shortly before stopping (most manufacturers 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). This lets the turbo rotating assembly cool from the lower exhaust gas temperatures, and ensures that oil is supplied to the turbocharger while the turbine housing and exhaust manifold are still very hot; otherwise coking of the lubricating oil trapped in the unit may occur when the heat soaks into the bearings, causing rapid bearing wear and failure when the car is restarted. Even small particles of burnt oil will accumulate and lead to choking the oil supply and failure. This problem is less pronounced in diesel engines, due to the lower exhaust temperatures and generally slower engine speeds.

A turbo timer can keep an engine running for a pre-specified period of time, to automatically provide this cool-down period. Oil coking is also eliminated by foil bearings. 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 utilizing tubular headers rather than cast iron manifolds, the need for a cool down period is reduced because the lighter headers store much less heat than heavy cast iron manifolds.


A pair of turbochargers mounted to an Inline 6 engine in a dragster. 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 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 foil bearings rather than conventional oil bearings. This reduces friction and contributes to faster acceleration of the turbo's rotating assembly. Variable-nozzle turbochargers (discussed above) also reduce lag.

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 carmakers combat lag by using two small turbos (such as Kia, Toyota, Subaru, Maserati, Mazda, and Audi). 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. Another well-known example is the 1993-2002 Mazda RX-7. 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. 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.

Electrical boosting ("E-boosting") is a new technology under development; it uses a high-speed electrical motor to drive the turbocharger to speed before exhaust gases are available, e.g. from a stoplight. The electric motor is about an inch long. [4]

Race cars often utilise an Anti-Lag System 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.

Boost Threshold

Turbocharger starts producing boost only above a certain rpm (around 1200-1500rpm) due to a lack of exhaust gas volume to overcome the inertia of rest of the turbo propeller. Power suddenly increases after that particular rpm when turbo propeller starts spinning. So power Vs. rpm curve of a turbocharged engine has a steep increase in power at boost threshold rpm. There have been many advancements in technology to reduce boost threshold rpm below idle speed rpm of the engine, so as to virtually eliminate the boost threshold.

Automotive Applications

Turbocharging is very common on diesel engines in conventional cars, in trucks, locomotives, for marine and heavy machinery applications. In fact, for current automotive applications, non-turbocharged diesel engines are becoming increasingly rare. Diesels are particularly suitable for turbocharging for several reasons:

Naturally-aspirated diesels will develop less power than a petrol engine of the same size, and will weigh significantly more because diesel engine require heavier, stronger components. This gives such engines a poor power-to-weight ratio; turbocharging can dramatically improve this P:W ratio, with large power gains for a very small (if any) increase in weight. Diesel engines require more robust construction because they already run at very high compression ratio and at high temperatures so they generally require little additional reinforcement to be able to cope with the addition of the turbocharger. Petrol engines often require extensive modification for turbocharging. Diesel engines have a narrower band of engine speeds at which they operate, thus making the operating characteristics of the turbocharger over that "rev range" less of a compromise than on a petrol-powered engine. Diesel engines blow nothing but air into the cylinders during cylinder charging, squirting fuel into the cylinder only after the intake valve has closed and compression has begun. Petrol engines differ from this in that both fuel and air are introduced during the intake cycle and both are compressed during the compression cycle. The higher intake charge temperatures of forced-induction engines reduces the amount of compression that is possible with a petrol engine, whereas diesel engines are far less sensitive to this.

Today, turbocharging is most commonly used on two types of engines: Petrol engines in high-performance cars and diesel engines in transportation and other industrial equipment. Small cars in particular benefit from this technology, as there is often little room to fit a larger-output (and physically larger) engine. Saab is a leader in production car turbochargers, starting with the 1978 Saab 99; all current Saab models are turbocharged with the exception of the 9-7X. The Porsche 944 utilized a turbo unit in the 944 Turbo (Porsche internal model number 951), to great advantage, bringing its 0-100 km/h (0-60 mph) times very close to its contemporary non-turbo "big brother", the Porsche 928.

In the 1980s, when turbocharged production cars became common, they gained a reputation for being difficult to handle. The tuned engines fitted to the cars, and the often primitive turbocharger technology meant that power delivery was unpredictable and the engine often suddenly delivered a huge boost in power at certain speeds. Some drivers said this made cars such as the BMW 2002 and the Porsche 911 exciting to drive, requiring high levels of skill. Others said the cars were difficult and often dangerous. As turbocharger technology improved, it became possible to produce turbocharged engines with a smoother, more predictable but just as effective power delivery.

Chrysler Corporation was an innovator of turbocharger use in the 1980s. Many of their production vehicles, for example the Chrysler LeBaron, Dodge Daytona, Dodge Shadow/Plymouth Sundance twins, and the Dodge Spirit/Plymouth Acclaim twins were available with turbochargers, and they proved very popular with the public. They are still considered competitive vehicles today, and the experience Chrysler obtained in observing turbochargers in real-world conditions has allowed them to further turbocharger technology with the PT Cruiser Turbo, the Dodge SRT-4 and the Dodge Caliber SRT-4.

Small car turbos are increasingly being used as the basis for small jet engines used for flying model aircraft—though the conversion is a highly specialised job—one not without its dangers. Jet engine enthusiasts have constructed home-built jet engines from automotive turbochargers, often running on propane and using a home-built combustion canister plumbed in between the high pressure side of the turbo's compressor and the intake side of the turbine. An oil supply for the bearings is still needed, usually provided by an electric pump. Starting such home-built jets is usually achieved by blowing air through the unit with a compressor or a domestic leaf-blower. Making these engines is not an easy task- unless the combustion canister design is correct the engine will either fail to start, fail to stabilise once running or even over-rev and destroy itself.

Most modern turbocharged aircraft use an adjustable wastegate. The wastegate is controlled manually, or by a pneumatic/hydraulic control system, or, as is becoming more and more common, by a flight computer. In the interests of engine longevity, the wastegate is usually kept open, or nearly so, at sea level to keep from overboosting the engine. As the aircraft climbs, the wastegate is gradually closed, maintaining the manifold pressure at or above sea level. In aftermarket applications, aircraft turbochargers sometimes do not overboost the engine, but rather compress ambient air to sea level pressure. For this reason, such aircraft are sometimes referred to as being turbo-normalised. Most applications produced by the major manufacturers (Beech, Cessna, Piper and others) increase the maximum engine intake air pressure by as much as 35%. Special attention to engine cooling and component strength is required because of the increased combustion heat and power.

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


The most common implementations of a turbocharger involve mounting the unit to the downpipe of a vehicle under the hood towards the firewall of the vehicle.

A rear mount implementation is used when there is insufficient engine bay room; it may be used in place of the stock muffler. The turbo returns the boosted air (which is pulled in from a filter mounted somewhere in the rear) to the front of the vehicle and optionally through an intercooler, and then to the intake of the engine. Wiring and oil lines must be run to the rear of the vehicle and an auxiliary oil pump must be used to return oil from the turbo to the engine. According to Horsepower TV (2/3/2007), you can expect a loss of 1 psi using a rear mount turbo, because of loss due to the long pipe routings, and also about a 100oF drop in intake air temperature. The decrease is due to the cooler exhaust gases (thus a cooler turbo unit) and the cooler intermediate pipe between the turbo and the intake. Benefits include easier maintenance, because the unit is more accessible.