A device that “blows” air into the cylinder would enable more air-mass to be squeezed inside said cylinder than by natural aspiration alone. This concept of forcing air into the cylinder to achieve greater than 100 per cent volumetric efficiency at a given ambient pressure is termed “supercharging”.
The device mentioned in the previous paragraph is called a compressor. It can be driven by an electric motor, or mechanically by a belt off the crankshaft. The turbocharger, however, relies neither on a motor nor a belt. Instead, a turbo compressor is driven by a shaft-connected turbine, which is made to spin by the hot, fast-fl owing exhaust gases of combustion. In theory, then, turbo-supercharging (to use the “correct” technical term) consumes no energy on its own since exhaust gases are waste products of the internal combustion process.
HOT AND BOTHERED
Turbocharging, though highly effective, isn’t as simple as it sounds. Heat is turbocharging’s biggest complication.
Compressed air, especially if it flows from an exhaust gas-driven device, experiences a significant rise in temperature. Not only does this mean a drop in the density of said air, it also causes pre-ignition of the air-fuel mixture in the combustion chamber – a phenomenon that frequently leads to stress failure in the cylinder head (and sometimes even the engine block).
It was essentially for this reason that the grand-daddies of turbo engines were designed with ridiculously low compression ratios – 6.5 to 1 in the case of Porsche’s 930 Turbo. This alleviated the pre-ignition problems, but the downside was lethargic pre-boost performance, better known as turbo lag. The turbo motor would be relatively lethargic till about 3000rpm, but the surge that came thereafter more than made up for lost time.
Porsche later incorporated something called an intercooler into the 930’s engine plumbing. It is basically a heat exchanger, which works like a radiator to cool the compressed air as it flows into the intake manifold. This allows the engine to run a slightly higher compression ratio and increases the density of intake air.
THE TURBO TODAY
While performance continues to be a major incentive to force-feed engines using a turbocharger, tremendous progress in the capabilities of both hardware and software has realised huge gains in fuel consumption and exhaust emissions, too.
Arguably the greatest effect the turbo has had on the automotive industry is “downsizing”, or the reduction of engine cubic capacity.
Volkswagen’s 1.4-litre TSI engine is a perfect example of the modern, small capacity turbocharged engine. There’s no turbo lag or overheating, just plenty of smooth torquey performance that belies the quoted 122bhp, thanks to a full 200Nm of torque available between 1500rpm and 4000rpm. The 1.4L VW’s sprightly mid-range acceleration feels more like that of a 2-litre, but when it comes to average mileage, the figures are closer to those of a naturally aspirated 1.2-litre. It’s the proverbial best of both worlds, on wheels
THE TURBO TOMORROW
Today’s state-of-the-art turbo engines deliver performance, economy and driveability that their naturally aspirated cousins of a similar capacity cannot match. With turbo technology continuing to improve, future turbocharged engines are likely to be even better than the ones we have right now.
This article was written by Shreejit Changaroth, freelance writer for Torque.