The History of the Turbocharger

Turbocharging engines have revolutionized the capability of piston powered aircraft, allowing them to operate at high altitudes with ease. As air pressure and density decreases as an aircraft rises higher above sea-level, aircraft typically lose engine power the higher they climb. To offset this effect, aircraft manufacturers often implement turbochargers within the engine, allowing for air to be compressed to a higher density before being mixed with fuel for combustion. In this blog, we will discuss the history of the turbocharger, as well as how they compare to other turbos such as superchargers.

Before the advent of modern turbocharging engines, forced induction was first achieved during the 19th century with the use of gear-driven pumps. Later, in 1905, Swiss engineer Alfred Büchi designed a compound radial engine that utilized an exhaust-driven axial flow turbine and compressor, and this engine is often considered to be the first turbocharger. This prototype was unable to reach production due to issues, however, and Büchi continued development until releasing a line of commercial turbochargers in 1925. Turbocharging engines quickly took off after, even seeing use in World War II on aircraft such as the B-17 Flying Fortress. As development of the technology continued, turbochargers even saw implementation on a variety of automobiles.

In a typical piston driven engine, combustion is created through the ignition of fuel and air mixtures, provided by the upward and downward strokes by the piston of the engine. During this process, intake gases are pushed into the engine through the downward stroke of the piston, and the amount of air that is mixed into the fuel is considered the volumetric efficiency. With a turbocharger, the volumetric efficiency of the piston engine is increased, allowing for much more power to be created per engine cycle. In general, turbochargers compress air that is drawn in from the atmosphere, increasing its pressure before it enters the intake manifold of the engine.

While the main objective of the turbocharging engine is to increase power, they can also be used to simply increase fuel efficiency. This is achieved by having exhaust waste energy diverted, supplying it to the hot intake side of the turbocharger. This causes the hot turbine side to be driven by the exhaust gases, allowing for the intake turbine to take in and compress atmospheric air with ease. As the turbocharger is driven by exhaust air, it can save more energy when compressing air for combustion.

Similar to the turbocharger, the supercharger engine is another example of a compressor that can provide an internal combustion engine with dense air from the atmosphere. Superchargers are also found on a variety of aircraft and automobiles, and they are considered a type of turbo. While similar to a turbocharger, the main difference of turbochargers vs superchargers is that the supercharger is mechanically driven by the engine. To power a supercharger, the apparatus requires belts, chains, shafts, and gears, and thus the main mechanical load of the operation is placed upon the vehicle engine that the supercharger is attached to. Because of this design, the benefits can sometimes outweigh the costs of the supercharger, making turbochargers more useful. Additionally, superchargers have lower adiabatic efficiency, meaning that they can add excess heat to the air when compressing it, providing less power than cooler, denser air that is supplied by a turbocharger.

With a turbocharger, piston powered aircraft can operate at higher altitudes with ease. If you are in need of turbocharger engine components or other aircraft parts, Aviation Distribution is your sourcing solution. Aviation Distribution is a premier online distributor on aviation parts, providing customers access to an unparalleled catalogue consisting of over 2 billion new, used, and obsolete items. Explore our robust catalogues at your leisure, and our team of industry experts are readily available 24/7x365 to assist you in the purchasing process.


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