A turbocharger, or turbo (colloquialism), from the Greek "τύρβη" (mixing/spinning) is a forced induction device used to allow more power to be produced for an engine of a given size. The key difference between a turbocharger and a conventional supercharger is that the latter is mechanically driven from the engine often from a belt connected to the crankshaft, whereas a turbocharger is driven by the engine's exhaust gases.

A turbocharged engine can be more powerful and efficient than a naturally aspirated engine because the turbine forces more intake air, proportionately more fuel, into the combustion chamber than if atmospheric pressure alone is used.

Turbos are commonly used on truck, car, train and construction equipment engines. Turbos are popularly used with Otto cycle and Diesel cycle internal combustion engines. They have also been found useful in automotive fuel cells.

Twincharger refers to an engine which has both a supercharger and a turbocharger.


Forced induction dates from the late 19th century, when Gottlieb Daimler patented the technique of using a gear-driven pump to force air into an internal combustion engine in 1885. The turbocharger was invented by Swiss engineer Alfred Büchi (1879-1959), the head of diesel engine research at Gebruder Sulzer engine manufacturing company in Winterhur, who received a patent in 1905 for using a compressor driven by exhaust gasses to force air into a diesel engine to increase power output but it took another 20 years for the idea to come to fruition. During World War I French engineer Auguste Rateau fitted turbochargers to Renault engines powering various French fighters with some success. In 1918, General Electric engineer Sanford Alexander Moss attached a turbo to a V12 Liberty aircraft engine. The engine was tested at Pikes Peak in Colorado at 14,000 ft (4,300 m) to demonstrate that it could eliminate the power loss usually experienced in internal combustion engines as a result of reduced air pressure and density at high altitude. General Electric called the system turbosupercharging. At the time, all forced induction devices were known as superchargers, however more recently the term "supercharger" is usually applied to only mechanically-driven forced induction devices.

Turbochargers were first used in production aircraft engines such as the Napier Lioness in the 1920s, although they were less common than engine-driven centrifugal superchargers. Ships and locomotives equipped with turbocharged Diesel engines began appearing in the 1920s. Turbochargers were also used in aviation, most widely used by the United States, which led the world in the technology due to General Electric's early start. During World War II, notable examples of US aircraft with turbochargers include the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt. The technology was also used in experimental fittings by a number of other manufacturers, notably a variety of Focke-Wulf Fw 190 models, but the need for advanced high-temperature metals in the turbine kept them out of widespread use.

Turbocharging versus supercharging

In contrast to turbochargers, superchargers are not powered by exhaust gases but driven by the engine mechanically. Belts, chains, shafts, and gears are common methods of powering a supercharger. A supercharger places a mechanical load on the engine to drive. For example, on the single-stage single-speed supercharged Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the supercharger uses up about 150 horsepower (110 kW). Yet the benefits outweigh the costs: For that 150 hp (110 kW), the engine generates an additional 400 horsepower, a net gain of 250 hp (190 kW). This is where the principal disadvantage of a supercharger becomes apparent: the internal hardware of the engine must withstand the net power output of the engine plus the 150 horsepower to drive the supercharger.

In comparison, a turbocharger does not place a direct mechanical load on the engine. It is more efficient because it uses kinetic energy of the exhaust gas to drive the compressor. In contrast to supercharging, the principal disadvantages of turbocharging are back-pressure, heat soak of the intake air and the inefficiencies of the turbine versus direct-drive.

A combination of an exhaust-driven turbocharger and an engine-driven supercharger can mitigate the weaknesses of the other. This technique is called twincharging.

Operating principle

In most piston engines, intake gases are "pulled" into the engine by the downward stroke of the piston (which creates a low-pressure area), similar to drawing liquid using a syringe. The amount of air which is actually inhaled, compared with the theoretical amount if the engine could maintain atmospheric pressure, is called volumetric efficiency. The objective of a turbocharger is to improve an engine's volumetric efficiency by increasing density of the intake gas (usually air).

The turbocharger's compressor draws in ambient air and compresses it before it enters into the intake manifold at increased pressure. This results in a greater mass of air entering the cylinders on each intake stroke. The power needed to spin the centrifugal compressor is derived from the kinetic energy of the engine's exhaust gases.

A turbocharger may also be used to increase fuel efficiency without increasing power. This is achieved by recovering waste energy in the exhaust and feeding it back into the engine intake. By using this otherwise wasted energy to increase the mass of air, it becomes easier to ensure that all fuel is burned before being vented at the start of the exhaust stage. The increased temperature from the higher pressure gives a higher Carnot efficiency.

Pressure increase / boost

In automotive applications, "boost" refers to the amount that intake manifold pressure that exceeds atmospheric pressure. This is representative of the extra air pressure that is achieved over what would be achieved without the forced induction. The level of boost may be shown on a pressure gauge, usually in bar, psi or possibly kPa.

In aircraft engines, turbocharging is commonly used to maintain manifold pressure as altitude increases (i.e. compensate for lower density air at higher altitudes). Since atmospheric pressure reduces as the aircraft climbs, power drops as a function of altitude in normally aspirated engines. Systems that use a turbocharger to maintain an engine's sea-level power output are called turbo-normalized systems. Generally, a turbo-normalized system will attempt to maintain a manifold pressure of 29.5 inches of mercury (100 kPa).

In all turbocharger applications, boost pressure is limited to keep the entire engine system, including the turbo, inside its thermal and mechanical design operating range. Over-boosting an engine frequently causes damage to the engine in a variety of ways including pre-ignition, overheating, and over-stressing the engine's internal hardware.

For example, to avoid engine knocking (aka pre-ignition or detonation) and the related physical damage to the engine, the intake manifold pressure must not get too high, thus the pressure at the intake manifold of the engine must be controlled by some means. Opening the wastegate allows the energy for the turbine to bypass it and pass directly to the exhaust pipe, thus reducing boost pressure. The wastegate can be either controlled manually (frequently seen in aircraft) or by an actuator (in automotive applications, it is often controlled by the Engine Control Unit).

Turbo lag

Turbocharger applications can be categorised according to those which require changes in output power (such as automotive) and those which do not (such as marine, aircraft, commercial automotive, industrial, locomotives). While important to varying degrees, turbo lag is most problematic when rapid changes in power output are required.

Turbo lag is the time required to change power output in response to a throttle change. For example, this is noticed as a hesitation or slowed throttle response when accelerating from idle as compared to a naturally aspirated engine. This is due to the time needed for the exhaust system and turbocharger to generate the required boost. Inertia, friction, and compressor load are the primary contributors to turbo lag. Superchargers do not suffer this problem, because the turbine is eliminated due to the compressor being directly powered by the engine.

Lag can be reduced in a number of ways:

  • lowering the rotational inertia of the turbocharger; for example by using lighter, lower radius parts to allow the spool-up to happen more quickly. Ceramic turbines are of benefit in this regard and or billet compressor wheel.
  • changing the aspect ratio of the turbine.
  • increasing the upper-deck air pressure (compressor discharge) and improving the wastegate response
  • reducing bearing frictional losses (such as by using a foil bearing rather than a conventional oil bearing)
  • using variable-nozzle turbochargers (discussed below).
  • decreasing the volume of the upper-deck piping.
  • using multiple turbos sequentially or in parallel.
  • using an Antilag system.

Boost threshold

Lag is not to be confused with the boost threshold. The boost threshold of a turbo system describes the lower bound of the region within which the compressor will operate. Below a certain rate of flow, a compressor will not produce significant boost. This has the effect of limiting boost at particular rpm regardless of exhaust gas pressure. Newer turbocharger and engine developments have caused boost thresholds to steadily decline.

Electrical boosting ("E-boosting") is a new technology under development; it uses an electric motor to bring the turbo up to operating speed quicker than is possible using exhaust gases are available. An alternative to e-boosting is to completely separate the turbine and compressor into a turbine-generator and electric-compressor as in the hybrid turbocharger. This allows the compressor speed to become independent to that of the turbine. A similar system utilising a hydraulic drive system and overspeed clutch arrangement was fitted in 1981 to accelerate the turbocharger of the MV Canadian Pioneer (Doxford 76J4CR engine). Turbochargers start producing boost only when a certain amount of kinetic energy (e.g. momentum) is present in the exhaust gasses. Without adequate exhaust gas flow to spin the turbine blades, the turbo cannot produce the necessary force needed to compress the air going into the engine. The boost threshold is determined by the engine displacement, engine rpm, throttle opening, and the size of the turbo. The operating speed (rpm) at which there is enough exhaust gas momentum to compress the air going into the engine is called the "boost threshold rpm". Reducing the "boost threshold rpm" can improve throttle response

The control of turbochargers is very complex and has changed dramatically over the 100-plus years of its use. Modern turbochargers can use wastegates, blow-off valves and variable geometry, as discussed in later sections.

The reduced density of intake air is often compounded by the loss of atmospheric density seen with elevated altitudes. Thus, a natural use of the turbocharger is with aircraft engines. As an aircraft climbs to higher altitudes, the pressure of the surrounding air quickly falls off. At 5,486 metres (17,999 ft), the air is at half the pressure of sea level, which means that the engine will produce less than half-power at this altitude.

Key components and installation

The turbocharger has three main components:

  1. the turbine, which is almost always a radial inflow turbine
  2. the compressor, which is almost always a centrifugal compressor
  3. the center housing/hub rotating assembly

Many modern turbochargers include extra components (such as wastegates and variable vane systems).


Kinetic energy of the exhaust gas is captured using the turbine. The turbine housings direct the gas flow through the turbine as it spins at up to 250,000 rpm. The size and shape can dictate some performance characteristics of the overall turbocharger. Often the same basic turbocharger assembly will be available from the manufacturer with multiple housing choices for the turbine and sometimes the compressor cover as well. This allows the balance between performance, response, and efficiency to be tailored to the application.

Twin-scroll designs have two valve-operated exhaust gas inlets, a smaller sharper angled one for quick response and a larger less angled one for peak performance.

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. In general, 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. Variable geometry turbochargers are further developments of these ideas.

Variable geometry turbine

Variable-geometry or variable-nozzle turbos use a set of vanes in the exhaust housing to maintain a constant gas velocity across the turbine (as used on power plant turbines) and are often used instead of using two turbochargers in different sizes.

Variable geometry allows lag to be reduced while maintaining the efficiency of a larger turbo at higher engine speeds. In many setups, these turbos do not use a wastegate. The vanes are controlled by a membrane identical to the one on a wastegate, but the mechanism operates the variable vane system instead. These variable turbochargers are commonly used in diesel engines.


The compressor increases the mass of intake air entering the combustion chamber. The compressor is made up of an impeller, a diffuser and a volute housing. The operating range of a compressor is described by the "compressor map".

Ported shroud The flow range of a turbocharger compressor can be increased by allowing air to bleed from a ring of holes or a circular groove around the compressor at a point slightly downstream of the compressor inlet (but far nearer to the inlet than to the outlet).

The ported shroud is a performance enhancement that allows the compressor to operate at significantly lower flows. It achieves this by forcing a simulation of impeller stall to occur continuously. Allowing some air to escape at this location inhibits the onset of surge and widens the operating range. While peak efficiencies may decrease, high efficiency may be achieved over a greater range of engine speeds. Increases in compressor efficiency result in slightly cooler (more dense) intake air, which improves power. This is a passive structure that is constantly open (in contrast to compressor exhaust blow off valves, which are electronically controlled). The ability of the compressor to provide high boost at low rpm may also be increased marginally (because near choke conditions the compressor draws air inward through the bleed path). Ported shrouds are used by turbocharger manufacturers such as Honeywell Turbo Technologies, Cummins Turbo Technologies, and GReddy.


When the pressure of the engine's intake air is increased, the temperature will also increase. In addition, a turbocharger may heat the intake air through heat soak from the hot exhaust gasses. Excessive intake air temperature reduces efficiency and leads to detonation, which is destructive to engines.

Turbocharged engines often include an intercooler (also known as a charge air cooler), to cool down the intake air. Intercoolers are often tested for leaks during routine servicing, particularly in trucks where a leaking intercooler can result in a 20% reduction in fuel economy.

Water injection

An alternative to intercooling is injecting water into the intake air to reduce the temperature. This method has been used in automotive and aircraft applications.

Fuel-air mixture ratio Main article: Air-fuel ratioIn addition to the use of intercoolers, it is common practice to add extra fuel to the intake air (known as "running an engine rich") for the sole purpose of cooling. The amount of extra fuel varies, but typically reduces the air-fuel ratio to between 11 and 13, instead of the stoichiometric 14.7 (in petrol engines). The extra fuel is not burned (as there is insufficient oxygen to complete the chemical reaction), instead it undergoes a phase change from vapor (liquid) to gas. This phase change absorbs heat, and the added mass of the extra fuel reduces the average kinetic energy of the charge and exhaust gas. Even when a catalytic converter is used, the practice of running an engine rich increases exhaust emissions.

Center housing/hub rotating assembly

The center hub rotating assembly (CHRA) 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 (the destructive distillation of the engine oil) from the extreme heat found in the turbine. The development of air-foil bearings has removed this risk. Adaptation of turbochargers on naturally aspirated internal combustion engines, on either petrol or diesel, can yield power increases of 30% to 40%.


To control the pressure (therefore mass) of the air coming from the compressor (known as the "upper-deck air pressure"), the engine's exhaust gas flow is regulated before it enters the turbine with a wastegate that bypasses the turbine. A wastegate is the most common mechanical speed control system, and is often further augmented by an electronic or manual 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. This regulates the rotational speed of the turbine and thus the turbocharger's boost. The wastegate is opened and closed by the compressed air from the turbo and can be raised by using a solenoid to regulate the pressure fed to the wastegate membrane. This solenoid is usually controlled by the engine's electronic control unit or a boost controller.

Most modern automotive engines have wastegates that are internal to the turbocharger, although some earlier engines (such as the Audi Inline-5 in the UrS4 and S6) have external wastegates. External wastegates are more accurate and efficient than internal wastegates, but are far more expensive, and thus are in general found only in racing cars. Amongst the modified car community, external wastegates may be configured to vent bypass gasses directly to atmosphere through a Screamer Pipe instead of routing them back into the exhaust. Although illegal in many areas, this method is often used due to the loud jet sound that is produced and potential performance gains from reduced exhaust back pressure.

Aircraft waste-gates and their operation are similar to automotive installations, however there are differences, usually depending on whether the application is "military/performance" or "non-performance".

Anti-surge/dump/blow off valves

Turbocharged engines operating at wide open throttle and high rpm require a large volume of air to flow between the turbo and the inlet of the engine. When the throttle is closed, compressed air will flow to the throttle valve without an exit (i.e., the air has nowhere to go).

In this situation, the surge can raise the pressure of the air to a level that can cause damage. This is because if the pressure rises high enough, a compressor stall will occur, where the stored pressurized air decompresses backward across the impeller and out the inlet. The reverse flow back across the turbocharger causes the turbine shaft to reduce in speed more quickly than it would naturally, possibly damaging the turbocharger.

In order to prevent this from happening, a valve is fitted between the turbo and inlet, which vents off the excess air pressure. These are known as an anti-surge, diverter, bypass, blow-off valve (BOV), or dump valve. It is a pressure relief valve, and is normally operated by the vacuum in the intake manifold.

The primary use of this valve is to maintain the spinning of the turbocharger at a high speed. The air is usually recycled back into the turbo inlet (diverter or bypass valves) but can also be vented to the atmosphere (blow off valve). Recycling back into the turbocharger inlet is required on an engine that uses a mass-airflow fuel injection system, because dumping the excessive air overboard downstream of the mass airflow sensor will cause an excessively rich fuel mixture (this is because the mass-airflow sensor has already accounted for the extra air that is no longer being used). Valves that recycle the air will also shorten the time needed to re-spool the turbo after sudden engine deceleration, since the load on the turbo when the valve is active is much lower than it is if the air charge is vented to atmosphere.

Factors affecting lifespan

Turbochargers can be damaged by dirty or ineffective oiling systems, 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 turbochargers have high operating temperatures, it is often recommended to let the engine idle for up to three minutes before shutting off the engine if the turbocharger was used shortly before stopping. This gives time to cool the turbo rotating assembly. It also 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. Small particles of burnt oil can accumulate and lead to choking the oil supply and failure. This problem is less pronounced in diesel engines, due to specifications of higher-quality oil.

A turbo timer can keep an engine running for a pre-specified period of time, to automatically provide this cool-down period, however turbo-timers are illegal on public roads in many areas. 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. Nevertheless, it is bad practice to shut the engine off while the turbo and manifold are still glowing with heat. In custom applications using tubular headers rather than cast iron manifolds, the need for a cooldown period is reduced because the lighter headers store much less heat than heavy cast iron manifolds.

Race cars often use an Anti-Lag System to reduce lag at the cost of reduced turbocharger life.


Petrol powered cars

The first turbocharged passenger car was the Oldsmobile Turbo Jetfire in 1962. Today, turbocharging is commonly used by many manufacturers of petrol powered cars. Turbocharging can be used to increase power output for a given capacity or increase fuel efficiency by allowing a smaller displacement engine to be used.

Diesel powered cars

The first production turbo diesel passenger car was the Garrett-turbocharged Mercedes 300SD introduced in 1978. Today, many automotive diesels are turbocharged, since the use of turbocharging improved efficiency, driveability and performance of diesel engines, greatly increasing their popularity.


The first example of a turbocharged bike is the 1978 Kawasaki Z1R TC. Several Japanese companies produced turbocharged high performance motorcycles in the early 1980s. Since then, few turbocharged motorcycles have been produced.

The Dutch manufacturer EVA motorcycles builds a small series of turbocharged diesel motorcycle with an 800cc smart CDI engine.


The first turbocharged diesel truck was produced by Schweizer Maschinenfabrik Saurer (Swiss Machine Works Saurer) in 1938.


A natural use of the turbocharger is with aircraft engines. As an aircraft climbs to higher altitudes the pressure of the surrounding air quickly falls off. At 5,486 m (18,000 ft), the air is at half the pressure of sea level and the airframe experiences only half the aerodynamic drag. However, since the charge in the cylinders is being pushed in by this air pressure, it means that the engine will normally produce only half-power at full throttle at this altitude. Pilots would like to take advantage of the low drag at high altitudes in order to go faster, but a naturally aspirated engine will not produce enough power at the same altitude to do so.

The table below is used to demonstrate the wide range of conditions experienced. As seen in the table below, there is significant scope for forced induction to compensate for lower density environments.

Daytona Beach Denver Death Valley Colorado State Highway 5 La Rinconada, Peru,
elevation 0 m / 0 ft 1,609 m / 5,280 ft -86 m / -282 ft 4,347 m / 14,264 ft 5,100 m / 16,732 ft
atm 1.000 0.823 1.010 0.581 0.526
bar 1.013 0.834 1.024 0.589 0.533
psia 14.696 12.100 14.846 8.543 7.731
kPa 101.3 83.40 102.4 58.90 53.30

A turbocharger remedies this problem by compressing the air back to sea-level pressures, or even much higher, in order to produce rated power at high altitude. Since the size of the turbocharger is chosen to produce a given amount of pressure at high altitude, the turbocharger is over-sized for low altitude. The speed of the turbocharger is controlled by a wastegate. Early systems used a fixed wastegate, resulting in a turbocharger that functioned much like a supercharger. Later systems utilized an adjustable wastegate, controlled either manually by the pilot or by an automatic hydraulic or electric system. When the aircraft is at low altitude the wastegate is usually fully open, venting all the exhaust gases overboard. As the aircraft climbs and the air density drops, the wastegate must continuously close in small increments to maintain full power. The altitude at which the wastegate is fully closed and the engine is still producing full rated power is known as the critical altitude. When the aircraft climbs above the critical altitude, engine power output will decrease as altitude increases just as it would in a naturally aspirated engine.

With older supercharged aircraft, the pilot must continually adjust the throttle to maintain the required manifold pressure during ascent or descent. The pilot must also take great care to avoid overboosting the engine and causing damage, especially during emergencies such as go-arounds. In contrast, modern turbocharger systems use an automatic wastegate, which controls the manifold pressure within parameters preset by the manufacturer. For these systems, as long as the control system is working properly and the pilot's control commands are smooth and deliberate, a turbocharger will not overboost the engine and damage it.

Yet the majority of World War II engines used superchargers, because they maintained three significant manufacturing advantages over turbochargers, which were larger, involved extra piping, and required exotic high-temperature materials in the turbine and pre-turbine section of the exhaust system. The size of the piping alone is a serious issue; American fighters Vought F4U and Republic P-47 used the same engine but the huge barrel-like fuselage of the latter was, in part, needed to hold the piping to and from the turbocharger in the rear of the plane. Turbocharged piston engines are also subject to many of the same operating restrictions as gas turbine engines. Pilots must make smooth, slow throttle adjustments to avoid overshooting their target manifold pressure. The fuel mixture must often be adjusted far on the rich side of stoichiometric combustion needs to avoid pre-detonation in the engine when running at high power settings. In systems using a manually operated wastegate, the pilot must be careful not to exceed the turbocharger's maximum rpm. Turbocharged engines require a cooldown period after landing to prevent cracking of the turbo or exhaust system from thermal shock. Turbocharged engines require frequent inspections of the turbocharger and exhaust systems for damage due to the increased heat, increasing maintenance costs.

Today, most general aviation aircraft are naturally aspirated. The small number of modern aviation piston engines designed to run at high altitudes in general use a turbocharger or turbo-normalizer system rather than a supercharger. The change in thinking is largely due to economics. Aviation gasoline was once plentiful and cheap, favoring the simple but fuel-hungry supercharger. As the cost of fuel has increased, the supercharger has fallen out of favor.

Turbocharged aircraft often occupy a performance range between that of normally aspirated piston-powered aircraft and turbine-powered aircraft. The increased maintenance costs of a turbocharged engine are considered worthwhile for this purpose, as a turbocharged piston engine is still far cheaper than any turbine engine.

As the turbocharged aircraft climbs, however, the pilot (or automated system) can close the wastegate, forcing more exhaust gas through the turbocharger turbine, thereby maintaining manifold pressure during the climb, at least until the critical pressure altitude is reached (when the wastegate is fully closed), after which manifold pressure will fall. With such systems, modern high-performance piston engine aircraft can cruise at altitudes above 20,000 feet, where low air density results in lower drag and higher true airspeeds. This allows flying "above the weather". In manually controlled wastegate systems, the pilot must take care not to overboost the engine, which will cause pre-ignition, leading to engine damage. Further, since most aircraft turbocharger systems do not include an intercooler, the engine is typically operated on the rich side of peak exhaust temperature in order to avoid overheating the turbocharger.

In non-high-performance turbocharged aircraft, the turbocharger is solely used to maintain sea-level manifold pressure during the climb (this is called turbo-normalizing).

Modern turbocharged aircraft usually forgo any kind of temperature compensation, because the turbochargers are in general small and the manifold pressures created by the turbocharger are not very high. Thus, the added weight, cost, and complexity of a charge cooling system are considered to be unnecessary penalties. In those cases, the turbocharger is limited by the temperature at the compressor outlet, and the turbocharger and its controls are designed to prevent a large enough temperature rise to cause detonation. Even so, in many cases the engines are designed to run rich in order to use the evaporating fuel for charge cooling.