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The ubiquitous yet invisible power multiplier turns 110 years

110 years of turbocharging

Exploring one of industrialization’s most significant driving forces

The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology notes that the prefix “turbo” originally meant driven by a turbine, as in turbocharge, but has since come to indicate desirable speed and power - even to the extent that cattle bred to give high milk yields are called turbo-cows!  But the fact that the prefix has entered into everyday language underlines the ability of the turbocharger technology to impress! 

For the man or woman in the street, their experience of turbocharging comes via their cars. In the automotive world it was turbocharging that turned diesel cars from smoking lame ducks into fast movers with exactly the “desirable speed and power” the Reference Guide speaks of. And not least, the fuel economy of diesel cars is much better than their petrol engine rivals. 

What few people realize, however, is that car engines are a bit of a latecomer when it comes to enjoying the benefits of turbocharging. The kind of very large engines used in ships and boats, power stations, locomotives and large vehicles and machines – some of which have cylinders 1000 times larger than a car’s –  have been using turbocharging for decades to increase their power output, reduce their fuel consumption and, most recently, to dramatically lower their emissions of both harmful substances and greenhouse gases. 

In fact, on modern large engines, the latest advanced turbocharging systems are capable of multiplying engine power fourfold and more compared to the engine’s potential without turbocharging – although it has to be said no one has even dreamt of producing a large diesel or gas engines without a turbocharger for many years!

Power from waste energy

But still, what is most remarkable about turbochargers is that their benefits derive essentially from a source of energy that would otherwise go to waste.

An internal combustion engine is an "air-breathing" machine, meaning the amount of power that can be obtained from a given engine is determined by the amount of air that it "breathes" in a certain period of time and not by the amount of fuel that is used. Thus turbochargers are installed on an engine to put more and denser air into the engine combustion chambers. The turbocharger uses the exhaust flow from the engine - which would otherwise go to waste - to spin a turbine, the turbine drives an impeller which sucks in and compresses air and then forces it into the engine’s cylinders.

The benefits are threefold.

  1. With more air entering the cylinder more fuel can be burnt to produce more power from a given size of engine.
  2. More air also means that the fuel burns more completely and produces more power with fewer residues - i.e. lower fuel consumption and cleaner, more efficient combustion.
  3. By compressing the air outside the cylinder, the engine’s pistons have to do less work on the compression stroke and the engine becomes more efficient mechanically, thereby prolonging the life of the engine.

And these benefits get better all the time, as turbocharger makers constantly research and develop their products. Progress in increasing power output, is the main enabler of a growing trend: “engine downsizing”. If you can make a smaller engine produce the same power output as its bigger brother then you have more space for passengers or luggage in a car. And similarly a smaller engine on a ship or truck means more space for cargo, less metal is used and there is less impact on the environment!

The heavy-duty performer

While the operating principles of turbochargers owned by about 50% of motorists and those used to power ships, boats, power stations, locomotives and various kinds of mobile and stationary machinery are similar and both types of turbochargers are high-precision instruments, turbochargers for large engines are, however, a unique combination of heavy-duty and high-precision industrial equipment capable of both withstanding and countering the wide range of adverse conditions that large engines have to cope with.

Hour after hour

Starting with operating hours: A diesel car covering 15,000 kilometres a year will probably operate for around 360 hours of the 8,760 hours in a year, and many of those 360 hours will be with the engine at low load, driving slowly in towns or waiting at traffic lights. A ship’s engine, on the other hand may operate for 6,000 hours and an engine producing electrical power may even log as many as 8,000 hours, all at their full design power output. And yet their turbochargers will only need servicing every 3 years. 

Hot, high and hostile!

Industrial turbochargers are especially subject to very demanding operating environments, for example those on large high-speed engines – i.e. engines operating at speeds between 1,000 rpm up to about 2,500 rpm, capable of powering fast boats and ships, and self-propelled equipment such as large dump trucks and excavators used in mining.

Similarly, due to their comparatively compact size and weight, they are used in transportable equipment such as electrical generators (known as generator sets or gen-sets for short) or pump and compressor-sets, which can be moved from one place of work to another. For these “sets” a major use is on oil and gas fields to drive drilling rigs and for pumping lubricating mud into the well-shafts during drilling or oil and gas out when the wells start to produce.

To call some of the environments encountered in the applications of high speed engines with ABB turbochargers “inhospitable” is an understatement. Take a huge dumper truck or excavator operating in open-cast mine in the Atacama Desert in the Peruvian Andes – the driest non-polar desert in the world. At 3,000 ​meters above sea level, the turbocharger’s task of delivering enough air to allow the engine to operate at its design power is compounded by thinner air due to both high ambient temperatures and high altitude and its durability needs to be protected from possible chemical corrosion due to the product being mined as well as abrasion from airborne dust. Move to the world’s jungles and the turbocharger is required to counter the effects on engine power output of heat and humidity.

Depth no obstacle

And now for something completely different – oil and gas exploration is not only taking place in deeper waters offshore but in the Arctic and Antarctic where temperatures can be as low in  °C as they are high in deserts and jungles.

  • Island Wellserver, turbocharged by ABB, is located 1,500 meters deep in the sea.

  • By 2020 21% of global total energy will be provided by oil and gas offshore.

  • Ultra-deep water drilling depths are between 1,500 and 3,650 meters

Arctic impacts

Balance during peaks and troughs

On ships, heavy weather is always a problem. In the case of the vast majority of freighters with mechanical propulsion, when the ship crests a wave and its propeller emerges, it speeds up due to low resistance and then slows down instantly as the propeller bites into the water as the ship falls into the trough.

This action causes severe vibrations in the propulsion system and could even stop an engine, which in a storm is definitely not a desirable state of affairs.

But with a well-designed “application-engineered” turbocharger, the engine will still get its rightful quota of combustion air and will rapidly recover without stalling.

With high-performance turbochargers onboard, ships will not make heavy weather of heavy seas!

As the global climate changes, ships are having to ply arctic waters more and more.

In pack ice, propellers collide with large and heavy frozen blocks and this can stop or almost stop the engine. In these circumstances a ship's engine needs the power and torque to withstand these extreme torsional shocks, and here also, a reliable and robust turbocharger is a central factor in allowing the engine to recover from a rude shock.

Designed to perform and built to last

In all these extremes of ambient conditions turbochargers are expected perform their job to perfection, supplying enough combustion air efficiently enough for diesel engines in offshore vessels, dumper trucks, mining excavators, generator and pump set, and drilling rigs on land and at sea to produce high power for long periods.

ABB turbochargers are designed by ABB engineers to meet these adverse conditions. During development, products and related technologies are adapted to a given application and operational environment – so-called "application engineering”. Indeed, during the development of the A100 turbocharger series for example, one of ABB’s mainstay products, engineers achieved record turbocharging efficiencies, enabling these turbochargers to cope with the most challenging operating environments.

As high-precision equipment, ABB turbochargers give many hours of problem-free use between extended service intervals. And like any piece of precision equipment, they deliver their best when they are kept in prime condition, which means not only scheduled service maintenance but also expert maintenance.

Unhinged force contained

A turbocharger is literally a “bundle of energy” with a rotor turning at 1000s of revolutions per minute. If that immense, energy is not properly harnessed, things could go dramatically wrong.

For this reason, an example of every new ABB turbocharger series is subject to a containment or “burst” test.

In this exercise, a turbocharger is deliberately operated beyond its safe limits to see whether its ​structure is capable of withstanding the impact of rotor parts which burst due to the centrifugal or impact forces and hit the turbine and compressor casing.

ABB's "containment tests" are one of its kind in the industry. Although our turbochargers are built to precision and made to withstand the toughest operational environments, the containment test provides the additonal peace of mind that even in the most unlikely event of a turbocharger burst, no injuries or damage to an applcation occurs. Everything is contained in the turbocharger casing. 

Maintaining the high-standards

Turbochargers are subject to the laws of thermodynamics and the second law of thermodynamics tells us that all processes manifest a tendency toward decay and disintegration.

Although designed to precision and built for heavy operation, but just like top-performing professional athletes have to continue training to maintain top performance, a turbocharger requires the right care for continuous optimum performance.

The turbocharger maintenance schedule is calculated according to its running hours and this can vary highly depending on the operational environment and turbocharger type. A turbocharger maintenance interval can therefore range from 4,000 hours to 30,000 hours. The original turbocharger manufacturer is the best source of advice for the right service interval. ABB Turbocharging provides a precise calculation of maintenance intervals using specialized simulation.

Parts that fit and parts that are fit-for-purpose

Consequently, nothing performs in an ABB turbocharger like an ABB spare fitted by an ABB engineer!

As the designer and developer of the turbocharger and its parts – the so-called Original Equipment Manufacturer or OEM, ABB is clearly in the best position to provide the precision parts and expertise needed to keep ABB turbochargers on the top of their game.

For example, the turbines and compressor impellers are built to exacting tolerances to achieve the thermodynamic and aerodynamic efficiencies they need. They must be an optimum fit with their housings to ensure the maximum power is extracted from the exhaust gases and the maximum power transmitted into the compressor. A deviation of less than a millimetre can seriously affect a turbocharger’s efficiency and hence engine efficiency. Likewise, the shape of the turbine’s and compressor’s blades is carefully designed to optimise their aerodynamics and avoid vibrations.

The turbocharging innovation story continues

Turbochargers will remain with us well into the 21st century and beyond. An increasingly energy demanding world, will need more engines and more engines will need more turbochargers to make them more efficient – economically sound and environmentally friendly. ABB Turbocharging will continue to innovate and develop the world’s most efficient turbocharging technologies.