Staying power

The turbocharger: invented over 110 years ago, today it helps increase efficiency all over the world.

How can diesel engines be made more efficient? This was the question posed to ETH engineer and Sulzer employee Alfred Büchi. He answered in 1905 at the age of 26 by registering a patent for a “combustion machine consisting of a compressor, a piston engine, and a downstream turbine.” This marked the invention of today’s turbocharger which was the first device to employ otherwise unused exhaust gases as they were discharged from a combustion engine. Büchi contacted BBC in 1915 to develop the patent. But it was not until he moved from Sulzer to Howaldtswerke shipyard (Kiel) in 1918 and then returned to Switzerland in 1919 that he was able to develop his invention in a consortium involving BBC and the Schweizerische Lokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik (SLM, Swiss Locomotive and Machinery Works).

A turbocharger leaves the ABB turbocharging plant in Fredericia, Denmark.
A turbocharger leaves the ABB turbocharging plant in Fredericia, Denmark.

The first high-performance turbocharger left the BBC plant in 1924. The company kept on researching this technology and gave it its own development department in 1949. Büchi became the director of SLM in1926, founded his own engineering office in 1935, and was given an honorary doctorate by ETH in 1938. He later became a member of Switzerland’s National Council and died in 1959. His invention lives on in products like the ABB 800-M turbocharger, which helped the Wärtsila 31 engine to earn a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most efficient four-stroke diesel engine.

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