Turbo Facts


The history of turbocharging is almost as old as that of the internal combustion engine. As early as 1885 and 1896, Gottlieb Daimler and Rudolf Diesel investigated increasing the power output and reducing the fuel consumption of their engines by precompressing the combustion air. In 1925, the Swiss engineer Alfred Büchi was the first to be successful with exhaust gas turbocharging, and achieved a power increase of more than 40 %. This was the beginning of the gradual introduction of turbocharging into the automotive industry.

The first turbocharger applications were limited to very large engines, e.g. marine engines. In the automotive engine industry, turbocharging started with truck engines. In 1938, the first turbocharged engine for trucks was built by the "Swiss Machine Works Saurer".

The Chevrolet Corvair Monza and the Oldsmobile Jetfire were the first turbo-powered passenger cars, and made their debut on the US market in 1962/63. Despite maximum technical outlay, however, their poor reliability caused them to disappear quickly from the market.

After the first oil crisis in 1973, turbocharging became more acceptable in commercial diesel applications. Until then, the high investment costs of turbocharging were offset only by fuel cost savings, which were minimal. Increasingly stringent emission regulations in the late 80's resulted in an increase in the number of turbocharged truck engines, so that today, virtually every truck engine is turbocharged.

In the 70's, with the turbocharger's entry into motor sports, especially into Formula I racing, the turbocharged passenger car engine became very popular. The word "turbo" became quite fashionable. At that time, almost every automobile manufacturer offered at least one top model equipped with a turbocharged petrol engine. However, this phenomenon disappeared after a few years because although the turbocharged petrol engine was more powerful, it was not economical. Furthermore, the "turbo-lag", the delayed response of the turbochargers, was at that time still relatively large and not accepted by most customers.

The real breakthrough in passenger car turbocharging was achieved in 1978 with the introduction of the first turbocharged diesel engine passenger car in the Mercedes-Benz 300 SD, followed by the VW Golf Turbodiesel in 1981. By means of the turbocharger, the diesel engine passenger car's efficiency could be increased, with almost petrol engine "driveability", and the emissions significantly reduced.

Today, the turbocharging of petrol engines is no longer primarily seen from the performance perspective, but is rather viewed as a means of reducing fuel consumption and, consequently, environmental pollution on account of lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Currently, the primary reason for turbocharging is the use of the exhaust gas energy to reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

Principles of Turbocharging

To better understand the technique of turbocharging, it is useful to be familiar with the internal combustion engine's principles of operation. Today, most passenger car and commercial diesel engines are four-stroke piston engines controlled by intake and exhaust valves. One operating cycle consists of four strokes during two complete revolutions of the crankshaft.

Schematic of a fourstroke piston engine Enlarge picture

• Suction (charge exchange stroke) When the piston moves down, air (diesel engine or direct injection petrol engine) or a fuel/air mixture (petrol engine) is drawn through the intake valve.

• Compression (power stroke) The cylinder volume is compressed.

• Expansion (power stroke) In the petrol engine, the fuel/air mixture is ignited by a spark plug, whereas in the diesel engine fuel is injected under high pressure and the mixture ignites spontaneously.

• Exhaust (charge exchange stroke) The exhaust gas is expelled when the piston moves up.

These simple operating principles provide various possibilities of increasing the engine's power output:

Swept volume enlargement

Enlargement of the swept volume allows for an increase in power output, as more air is available in a larger combustion chamber and thus more fuel can be burnt. This enlargement can be achieved by increasing either the number of cylinders or the volume of each individual cylinder. In general, this results in larger and heavier engines. As far as fuel consumption and emissions are concerned, no significant advantages can be expected.

Increase in engine rpm

Another possibility for increasing the engine's power output is to increase its speed. This is done by increasing the number of firing strokes per time unit. Because of mechanical stability limits, however, this kind of output improvement is limited. Furthermore, the increasing speed makes the frictional and pumping losses increase exponentially and the engine efficiency drops.


In the above-described procedures, the engine operates as a naturally aspirated engine. The combustion air is drawn directly into the cylinder during the intake stroke. In turbocharged engines, the combustion air is already pre-compressed before being supplied to the engine. The engine aspirates the same volume of air, but due to the higher pressure, more air mass is supplied into the combustion chamber. Consequently, more fuel can be burnt, so that the engine's power output increases related to the same speed and swept volume.

Basically, one must distinguish between mechanically supercharged and exhaust gas turbocharged engines.

Mechanical supercharging

With mechanical supercharging, the combustion air is compressed by a compressor driven directly by the engine. However, the power output increase is partly lost due to the parasitic losses from driving the compressor. The power to drive a mechanical turbocharger is up to 15 % of the engine output. Therefore, fuel consumption is higher when compared with a naturally aspirated engine with the same power output.

Schematic of a mechanically supercharged four-cylinder engine Enlarge picture

Exhaust gas turbocharging

In exhaust gas turbocharging, some of the exhaust gas energy, which would normally be wasted, is used to drive a turbine. Mounted on the same shaft as the turbine is a compressor which draws in the combustion air, compresses it, and then supplies it to the engine. There is no mechanical coupling to the engine.

Schematic of an exhaust gas turbocharged four-cylinder Enlarge picture

Advantages of Exhaust Gas Turbocharging

Compared with a naturally aspirated engine of identical power output, the fuel consumption of a turbo engine is lower, as some of the normally wasted exhaust energy contributes to the engine's efficiency. Due to the lower volumetric displacement of the turbo engine, frictional and thermal losses are less.

The power-to-weight ratio, i.e. kilowatt (power output)/kilograms (engine weight), of the exhaust gas turbocharged engine is much better than that of the naturally aspirated engine.

The turbo engine's installation space requirement is smaller than that of a naturally aspirated engine with the same power output.

A turbocharged engine's torque characteristic can be improved. Due to the so-called "maxidyne characteristic" (a very high torque increase at low engine speeds), close to full power output is maintained well below rated engine speed. Therefore, climbing a hill requires fewer gear changes and speed loss is lower.

The high-altitude performance of a turbocharged engine is significantly better. Because of the lower air pressure at high altitudes, the power loss of a naturally aspirated engine is considerable. In contrast, the performance of the turbine improves at altitude as a result of the greater pressure difference between the virtually constant pressure upstream of the turbine and the lower ambient pressure at outlet. The lower air density at the compressor inlet is largely equalized. Hence, the engine has barely any power loss.

Because of reduced overall size, the sound-radiating outer surface of a turbo engine is smaller, it is therefore less noisy than a naturally aspirated engine with identical output. The turbocharger itself acts as an additional silencer.

Design and Function of a Turbocharger

The turbocharger's basic functions have not fundamentally changed since the times of Alfred Büchi. A turbocharger consists of a compressor and a turbine connected by a common shaft. The exhaust-gas-driven turbine supplies the drive energy for the compressor


Design and function

Turbocharger compressors are generally centrifugal compressors consisting of three essential components: compressor wheel, diffuser, and housing. With the rotational speed of the wheel, air is drawn in axially, accelerated to high velocity and then expelled in a radial direction.

The diffuser slows down the high-velocity air, largely without losses, so that both pressure and temperature rise. The diffuser is formed by the compressor backplate and a part of the volute housing, which in its turn collects the air and slows it down further before it reaches the compressor exit.

Operating characteristics

The compressor operating behaviour is generally defined by maps showing the relationship between pressure ratio and volume or mass flow rate. The useable section of the map relating to centrifugal compressors is limited by the surge and choke lines and the maximum permissible compressor speed.

Surge line

The map width is limited on the left by the surge line. This is basically "stalling" of the air flow at the compressor inlet. With too small a volume flow and too high a pressure ratio, the flow can no longer adhere to the suction side of the blades, with the result that the discharge process is interrupted. The air flow through the compressor is reversed until a stable pressure ratio with positive volume flow rate is reached, the pressure builds up again and the cycle repeats. This flow instability continues at a fixed frequency and the resultant noise is known as "surging".

Compressor map of a turbocharger for passenger car applications Enlarge picture

Choke line

The maximum centrifugal compressor volume flow rate is normally limited by the cross-section at the compressor inlet. When the flow at the wheel inlet reaches sonic velocity, no further flow rate increase is possible. The choke line can be recognised by the steeply descending speed lines at the right on the compressor map.


Design and function

The turbocharger turbine, which consists of a turbine wheel and a turbine housing, converts the engine exhaust gas into mechanical energy to drive the compressor.

The gas, which is restricted by the turbine's flow cross-sectional area, results in a pressure and temperature drop between the inlet and outlet. This pressure drop is converted by the turbine into kinetic energy to drive the turbine wheel.

There are two main turbine types: axial and radial flow. In the axial-flow type, flow through the wheel is only in the axial direction. In radial-flow turbines, gas inflow is centripetal, i.e. in a radial direction from the outside in, and gas outflow in an axial direction.

Up to a wheel diameter of about 160 mm, only radial-flow turbines are used. This corresponds to an engine power of approximately 1000 kW per turbocharger. From 300 mm onwards, only axial-flow turbines are used. Between these two values, both variants are possible.

As the radial-flow turbine is the most popular type for automotive applications, the following description is limited to the design and function of this turbine type.

In the volute of such radial or centripetal turbines, exhaust gas pressure is converted into kinetic energy and the exhaust gas at the wheel circumference is directed at constant velocity to the turbine wheel. Energy transfer from kinetic energy into shaft power takes place in the turbine wheel, which is designed so that nearly all the kinetic energy is converted by the time the gas reaches the wheel outlet.

Operating characteristics

The turbine performance increases as the pressure drop between the inlet and outlet increases, i.e. when more exhaust gas is dammed upstream of the turbine as a result of a higher engine speed, or in the case of an exhaust gas temperature rise due to higher exhaust gas energy.

Turbocharger turbine map Enlarge picture

The turbine's characteristic behaviour is determined by the specific flow cross-section, the throat cross-section, in the transition area of the inlet channel to the volute. By reducing this throat cross-section, more exhaust gas is dammed upstream of the turbine and the turbine performance increases as a result of the higher pressure ratio. A smaller flow cross-section therefore results in higher boost pressures.

The turbine's flow cross-sectional area can be easily varied by changing the turbine housing.

Besides the turbine housing flow cross-sectional area, the exit area at the wheel inlet also influences the turbine's mass flow capacity. The machining of a turbine wheel cast contour allows the cross-sectional area and, therefore, the boost pressure, to be adjusted. A contour enlargement results in a larger flow cross-sectional area of the turbine.

Turbines with variable turbine geometry change the flow cross-section between volute channel and wheel inlet. The exit area to the turbine wheel is changed by variable guide vanes or a variable sliding ring covering a part of the cross-section.

In practice, the operating characteristics of exhaust gas turbocharger turbines are described by maps showing the flow parameters plotted against the turbine pressure ratio. The turbine map shows the mass flow curves and the turbine efficiency for various speeds. To simplify the map, the mass flow curves, as well as the efficiency, can be shown by a mean curve

For a high overall turbocharger efficiency, the co-ordination of compressor and turbine wheel diameters is of vital importance. The position of the operating point on the compressor map determines the turbocharger speed. The turbine wheel diameter has to be such that the turbine efficiency is maximised in this operating range.

Turbocharger with twin-entry turbine

The turbine is rarely subjected to constant exhaust pressure. In pulse turbocharged commercial diesel engines, twin-entry turbines allow exhaust gas pulsations to be optimised, because a higher turbine pressure ratio is reached in a shorter time. Thus, through the increasing pressure ratio, the efficiency rises, improving the all-important time interval when a high, more efficient mass flow is passing through the turbine. As a result of this improved exhaust gas energy utilisation, the engine's boost pressure characteristics and, hence, torque behaviour is improved, particularly at low engine speeds.

To prevent the various cylinders from interfering with each other during the charge exchange cycles, three cylinders are connected into one exhaust gas manifold. Twin-entry turbines then allow the exhaust gas flow to be fed separately through the turbine.

Water-cooled turbine housings

Turbocharger with water-cooled turbine housing for marine applications

Safety aspects also have to be taken into account in turbocharger design. In ship engine rooms, for instance, hot surfaces have to be avoided because of fire risks. Therefore, water-cooled turbocharger turbine housings or housings coated with insulating material are used for marine applications.

Control system

Target and function

The driveability of passenger car turbo engines must meet the same high requirements as naturally aspirated engines of the same power output. That means, full boost pressure must be available at low engine speeds. This can only be achieved with a boost pressure control system on the turbine side.

Control by turbine-side bypass

The turbine-side bypass is the simplest form of boost pressure control. The turbine size is chosen such that torque characteristic requirements at low engine speeds can be met and good vehicle driveability achieved. With this design, more exhaust gas than required to produce the necessary boost pressure is supplied to the turbine shortly before the maximum torque is reached. Therefore, once a specific boost pressure is achieved, part of the exhaust gas flow is fed around the turbine via a bypass. The wastegate which opens or closes the bypass is usually operated by a spring-loaded diaphragm in response to the boost pressure.

Today, electronic boost pressure control systems are increasingly used in modern passenger car diesel and petrol engines. When compared with purely pneumatic control, which can only function as a full-load pressure limiter, a flexible boost pressure control allows an optimal part-load boost pressure setting. This operates in accordance with various parameters such as charge air temperature, degree of timing advance and fuel quality. The operation of the flap corresponds to that of the previously described actuator. The actuator diaphragm is subjected to a modulated control pressure instead of full boost pressure.

Boost pressure control of a turbocharged petrol engine by proportional control pressure

This control pressure is lower than the boost pressure and generated by a proportional valve. This ensures that the diaphragm is subjected to the boost pressure and the pressure at the compressor inlet in varying proportions. The proportional valve is controlled by the engine electronics. For diesel engines, a vacuum-regulated actuator is used for electronic boost pressure control.

Variable turbine geometry

The variable turbine geometry allows the turbine flow cross-section to be varied in accordance with the engine operating point. This allows the entire exhaust gas energy to be utilised and the turbine flow cross-section to be set optimally for each operating point. As a result, the efficiency of the turbocharger and hence that of the engine is higher than that achieved with the bypass control.

Turbocharger for truck applications with variable turbine geometry (VTG)

Flow cross-section control through variable guide vanes: VTG

Variable guide vanes between the volute housing and the turbine wheel have an effect on the pressure build-up behaviour and, therefore, on the turbine power output. At low engine speeds, the flow cross-section is reduced by closing the guide vanes. The boost pressure and hence the engine torque rise as a result of the higher pressure drop between turbine inlet and outlet. At high engine speeds, the guide vanes gradually open. The required boost pressure is achieved at a low turbine pressure ratio and the engine's fuel consumption reduced. During vehicle acceleration from low speeds the guide vanes close to gain maximum energy of the exhaust gas. With increasing speed, the vanes open and adapt to the corresponding operating point.

Today, the exhaust gas temperature of modern high-output diesel engines amounts to up to 830 °C. The precise and reliable guide vane movement in the hot exhaust gas flow puts high demands on materials and requires tolerances within the turbine to be exactly defined. Irrespective of the turbocharger frame size, the guide vanes need a minmum clearance to ensure reliable operation over the whole vehicle lifetime.

Bearing system

Turbocharger bearing system (cut-away model)

The turbocharger shaft and turbine wheel assembly rotates at speeds up to 300,000 rpm. Turbocharger life should correspond to that of the engine, which could be 1,000,000 km for a commercial vehicle. Only sleeve bearings specially designed for turbochargers can meet these high requirements at a reasonable cost.

Radial bearing system

With a sleeve bearing, the shaft turns without friction on an oil film in the sleeve bearing bushing. For the turbocharger, the oil supply comes from the engine oil circuit. The bearing system is designed such that brass floating bushings, rotating at about half shaft speed, are situated between the stationary centre housing and the rotating shaft. This allows these high speed bearings to be adapted such that there is no metal contact between shaft and bearings at any of the operating points. Besides the lubricating function, the oil film in the bearing clearances also has a damping function, which contributes to the stability of the shaft and turbine wheel assembly. The hydrodynamic load-carrying capacity and the bearing damping characteristics are optimised by the clearances. The lubricating oil thickness for the inner clearances is therefore selected with respect to the bearing strength, whereas the outer clearances are designed with regard to the bearing damping. The bearing clearances are only a few hundredths of a millimetre.

The one-piece bearing system is a special form of a sleeve bearing system. The shaft turns within a stationary bushing, which is oil scavenged from the outside. The outer bearing clearance can be designed specifically for the bearing damping, as no rotation takes place.

Axial-thrust bearing system

Neither the fully floating bushing bearings nor the single-piece fixed floating bushing bearing system support forces in axial direction. As the gas forces acting on the compressor and turbine wheels in axial direction are of differing strengths, the shaft and turbine wheel assembly is displaced in an axial direction. The axial bearing, a sliding surface bearing with tapered lands, absorbs these forces. Two small discs fixed on the shaft serve as contact surfaces. The axial bearing is fixed in the centre housing. An oil-deflecting plate prevents the oil from entering the shaft sealing area.

Oil drain

The lubricating oil flows into the turbocharger at a pressure of approximately 4 bar. As the oil drains off at low pressure, the oil drain pipe diameter must be much larger than the oil inlet pipe. The oil flow through the bearing should, whenever possible, be vertical from top to bottom. The oil drain pipe should be returned into the crankcase above the engine oil level. Any obstruction in the oil drain pipe will result in back pressure in the bearing system. The oil then passes through the sealing rings into the compressor and the turbine.


The centre housing must be sealed against the hot turbine exhaust gas and against oil loss from the centre housing. A piston ring is installed in a groove on the rotor shaft on both the turbine and compressor side. These rings do not rotate, but are firmly clamped in the centre housing. This contactless type of sealing, a form of labyrinth seal, makes oil leakage more difficult due to multiple flow reversals, and ensures that only small quantities of exhaust gas escape into the crankcase.

Turbocharger for passenger car gasoline applications with water-cooled bearing housing

Petrol engines, where the exhaust gas temperatures are 200 to 300 °C higher than in diesel engines, are generally equipped with water-cooled centre housings. During operation of the engine, the centre housing is integrated into the cooling circuit of the engine. After the engine's shutdown, the residual heat is carried away by means of a small cooling circuit, which is driven by a thermostatically controlled electric water pump.


As turbochargers have to meet different requirements with regard to map height, map width, efficiency characteristics, moment of inertia of the rotor and conditions of use, new compressor and turbine types are continually being developed for various engine applications. Furthermore, different regional legal emission regulations lead to different technical solutions.

The compressor and turbine wheels have the greatest influence on the turbocharger's operational characteristics. These wheels are designed by means of computer programs which allow a three-dimensional calculation of the air and exhaust gas flows. The wheel strength is simultaneously optimised by means of the finite-element method (FEM), and durability calculated on the basis of realistic driving cycles.

CAD-assembled model of a turbocharger

Despite today's advanced computer technology and detailed calculation programs, it is testing which finally decides on the quality of the new aerodynamic components. The fine adjustment and checking of results is therefore carried out on turbocharger test stands.


The vital components of a turbocharger are the turbine and the compressor. Both are turbo-machines which, with the help of modelling laws, can be manufactured in various sizes with similar characteristics. Thus, by enlarging and reducing, the turbocharger range is established, allowing the optimal turbocharger frame size to be made available for various engine sizes. However, the transferability to other frame sizes is restricted, as not all characteristics can be scaled dimensionally. Furthermore, requirements vary in accordance with each engine size, so that it is not always possible to use the same wheel or housing geometries.

The model similarity and modular design principle, however, permit the development of turbochargers which are individually tailored to every engine. This starts with the selection of the appropriate compressor on the basis of the required boost pressure characteristic curve. Ideally, the full-load curve should be such that the compressor efficiency is at its maximum in the main operating range of the engine. The distance to the surge line should be sufficiently large.

The thermodynamic matching of the turbocharger is implemented by means of mass flow and energy balances. The air delivered by the compressor and the fuel fed to the engine constitute the turbine mass flow rate. In steady-state operation, the turbine and compressor power outputs are identical (free wheel condition). The matching calculaton is iterative, based on compressor and turbine maps, as well as the most important engine data.

The matching calculation can be very precise when using computer programs for the calculated engine and turbocharger simulation. Such programs include mass, energy and material balances for all cylinders and the connected pipework. The turbocharger enters into the calculation in the form of maps. Furthermore, such programs include a number of empirical equations to describe interrelationships which are difficult to express in an analytical way.


The turbocharger has to operate as reliably and for as long as the engine. Before a turbocharger is released for series production, it has to undergo a number of tests. This test programme includes tests of individual turbocharger components, tests on the turbocharger test stand and a test on the engine. Some tests from this complex testing programme are described below in detail.

Containment test

If a compressor or turbine wheel bursts, the remaining parts of the wheel must not penetrate the compressor or turbine housing. To achieve this, the shaft and turbine wheel assembly is accelerated to such a high speed that the respective wheel bursts. After bursting, the housing's containment safety is assessed. The burst speed is typically 50 % above the maximum permissible speed.

Low-Cycle Fatigue Test (LCF test)

The LCF test is a load test of the compressor or turbine wheel resulting in the component's destruction. It is used to determine the wheel material load limits. The compressor or turbine wheel is installed on an overspeed test stand. The wheel is accelerated by means of an electric motor until the specified tip speed is reached and then slowed down. On the basis of the results and the component's S/N curve, the expected lifetime can be calculated for every load cycle.

Rotor dynamic measurement

The rotational movement of the rotor is affected by the pulsating gas forces on the turbine. Through its own residual imbalance and through the mechanical vibrations of the engine, it is stimulated to vibrate. Large amplitudes may therefore occur within the bearing clearance and lead to instabilities, especially when the lubricating oil pressures are too low and the oil temperatures too high. At worst, this will result in metallic contact and abnormal mechanical wear.

The motion of the rotor is measured and recorded by contactless transducers located in the suction area of the compressor by means of the eddy current method. In all conditions and at all operating points, the rotor amplitudes should not exceed 80 % of maximum possible values. The motion of the rotor must not show any instability.

Start-stop test

The temperature drop in the turbocharger between the gases at the hot turbine side and at the cold compressor inlet can amount to as much as 1000 °C in a distance of only a few centimetres. During the engine's operation, the lubricating oil passing through the bearing cools the centre housing so that no critical component temperatures occur. After the engine has been shut down, especially from high loads, heat can accumulate in the centre housing, resulting in coking of the lubricating oil. It is therefore of vital importance to determine the maximum component temperatures at the critical points, to avoid the formation of lacquer and carbonised oil in the turbine-side bearing area and on the piston ring.

After the engine has been shut down at the full-load operating point, the turbocharger's heat build-up is measured. After a specified number of cycles, the turbocharger components are inspected. Only when the maximum permissible component temperatures are not exceeded and the carbonised oil quantities around the bearing are found to be low, is this test considered passed.

Cyclic endurance test

During engine operation, the waste gate is exposed to high thermal and mechanical loads. During the waste gate test, these loads are simulated on the test stand.

The checking of all components and the determination of the rates of wear are included in the cycle test. In this test, the turbocharger is run on the engine for several hundred hours at varying load points. The rates of wear are determined by detailed measurements of the individual components, before and after the test.