When people talk about race cars or high-performance sports cars, the topic of turbochargers usually comes up. Turbochargers also appear on large diesel engines. A turbo can significantly boost an engine's horsepower without significantly increasing its weight, which is the huge benefit that makes turbos so popular!
Turbochargers are a type of forced induction system. They compress the air flowing into the engine (see How Car Engines Work for a description of airflow in a normal engine). The advantage of compressing the air is that it lets the engine squeeze more air into a cylinder, and more air means that more fuel can be added. Therefore, you get more power from each explosion in each cylinder. A turbocharged engine produces more power overall than the same engine without the charging. This can significantly improve the power-to-weight ratio for the engine (see How Horsepower Works for details).
In order to achieve this boost, the turbocharger uses the exhaust flow from the engine to spin a turbine, which in turn spins an air pump. The turbine in the turbocharger spins at speeds of up to 150,000 rotations per minute (rpm) -- that's about 30 times faster than most car engines can go. And since it is hooked up to the exhaust, the temperatures in the turbine are also very high.
In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll learn how a turbocharger increases the power output of the engine while surviving these extreme operating conditions. We'll also learn how wastegates, ceramic turbine blades and ball bearings help turbochargers do their job even better!