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.

  • 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.

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.