Superchargers and Turbosuperchargers

To increase an engine’s horsepower, manufacturers have developed forced induction systems called supercharger and turbo-supercharger systems. They both compress the intake air to increase its density. The key difference lies in the power supply. A supercharger relies on an engine-driven air pump or compressor, while a turbocharger gets its power from the exhaust stream that runs through a turbine, which in turn spins the compressor. Aircraft with these systems have a manifold pressure gauge, which displays MAP within the engine’s intake manifold.

On a standard day at sea level with the engine shut down, the manifold pressure gauge will indicate the ambient absolute air pressure of 29.92 “Hg. Because atmospheric pressure decreases approximately 1 “Hg per 1,000 feet of altitude increase, the manifold pressure gauge will indicate approximately 24.92 “Hg at an airport that is 5,000 feet above sea level with standard day conditions.

As a normally aspirated aircraft climbs, it eventually reaches an altitude where the MAP is insufficient for a normal climb. That altitude limit is the aircraft’s service ceiling, and it is directly affected by the engine’s ability to produce power. If the induction air entering the engine is pressurized, or boosted, by either a supercharger or a turbo-supercharger, the aircraft’s service ceiling can be increased. With these systems, an aircraft can fly at higher altitudes with the advantage of higher true airspeeds and the increased ability to circumnavigate adverse weather.

Superchargers

A supercharger is an engine-driven air pump or compressor that provides compressed air to the engine to provide additional pressure to the induction air so the engine can produce additional power. It increases manifold pressure and forces the fuel/air mixture into the cylinders. The higher the manifold pressure, the more dense the fuel/air mixture, and the more power an engine can produce. With a normally aspirated engine, it is not possible to have manifold pressure higher than the existing atmospheric pressure. A supercharger is capable of boosting manifold pressure above 30 “Hg.

For example, at 8,000 feet a typical engine may be able to produce 75 percent of the power it could produce at mean sea level (MSL) because the air is less dense at the higher altitude. The supercharger compresses the air to a higher density allowing a supercharged engine to produce the same manifold pressure at higher altitudes as it could produce at sea level. Thus, an engine at 8,000 feet MSL could still produce 25 “Hg of manifold pressure whereas without a supercharger it could produce only 22 “Hg. Superchargers are especially valuable at high altitudes (such as 18,000 feet) where the air density is 50 percent that of sea level. The use of a supercharger in many cases will supply air to the engine at the same density it did at sea level. With a normally aspirated engine, it is not possible to have manifold pressure higher than the existing atmospheric pressure. A supercharger is capable of boosting manifold pressure above 30 “Hg.

The components in a supercharged induction system are similar to those in a normally aspirated system, with the addition of a supercharger between the fuel metering device and intake manifold. A supercharger is driven by the engine through a gear train at one speed, two speeds, or variable speeds. In addition, superchargers can have one or more stages. Each stage also provides an increase in pressure and superchargers may be classified as single stage, two stage, or multistage, depending on the number of times compression occurs.

An early version of a single-stage, single-speed supercharger may be referred to as a sea-level supercharger. An engine equipped with this type of supercharger is called a sea-level engine. With this type of supercharger, a single gear-driven impeller is used to increase the power produced by an engine at all altitudes. The drawback with this type of supercharger is a decrease in engine power output with an increase in altitude.

Single-stage, single-speed superchargers are found on many high-powered radial engines and use an air intake that faces forward so the induction system can take full advantage of the ram air. Intake air passes through ducts to a carburetor, where fuel is metered in proportion to the airflow. The fuel/air charge is then ducted to the supercharger, or blower impeller, which accelerates the fuel/air mixture outward. Once accelerated, the fuel/air mixture passes through a diffuser, where air velocity is traded for pressure energy. After compression, the resulting high pressure fuel/air mixture is directed to the cylinders.

Figure 6-14. Power output of normally aspirated engine compared to a single-stage, two-speed supercharged engine.

Figure 6-14. Power output of normally aspirated engine compared to a single-stage, two-speed supercharged engine.

Some of the large radial engines developed during World War II have a single-stage, two-speed supercharger. With this type of supercharger, a single impeller may be operated at two speeds. The low impeller speed is often referred to as the low blower setting, while the high impeller speed is called the high blower setting. On engines equipped with a two-speed supercharger, a lever or switch in the flight deck activates an oil-operated clutch that switches from one speed to the other.

Under normal operations, takeoff is made with the supercharger in the low blower position. In this mode, the engine performs as a ground-boosted engine, and the power output decreases as the aircraft gains altitude. However, once the aircraft reaches a specified altitude, a power reduction is made, and the supercharger control is switched to the high blower position. The throttle is then reset to the desired manifold pressure. An engine equipped with this type of supercharger is called an altitude engine. [Figure 6-14]

Turbosuperchargers

The most efficient method of increasing horsepower in an engine is by use of a turbosupercharger or turbocharger. Installed on an engine, this booster uses the engine’s exhaust gases to drive an air compressor to increase the pressure of the air going into the engine through the carburetor or fuel injection system to boost power at higher altitude.

The major disadvantage of the gear-driven supercharger––use of a large amount of the engine’s power output for the amount of power increase produced––is avoided with a turbocharger, because turbochargers are powered by an engine’s exhaust gases. This means a turbocharger recovers energy from hot exhaust gases that would otherwise be lost.

A second advantage of turbochargers over superchargers is the ability to maintain control over an engine’s rated sea-level horsepower from sea level up to the engine’s critical altitude. Critical altitude is the maximum altitude at which a turbocharged engine can produce its rated horsepower. Above the critical altitude, power output begins to decrease like it does for a normally aspirated engine.

Turbochargers increase the pressure of the engine’s induction air, which allows the engine to develop sea level or greater horsepower at higher altitudes. A turbocharger is comprised of two main elements: a compressor and turbine. The compressor section houses an impeller that turns at a high rate of speed. As induction air is drawn across the impeller blades, the impeller accelerates the air, allowing a large volume of air to be drawn into the compressor housing. The impeller’s action subsequently produces high-pressure, high-density air, which is delivered to the engine.

To turn the impeller, the engine’s exhaust gases are used to drive a turbine wheel that is mounted on the opposite end of the impeller’s drive shaft. By directing different amounts of exhaust gases to flow over the turbine, more energy can be extracted, causing the impeller to deliver more compressed air to the engine. The waste gate, essentially an adjustable butterfly valve installed in the exhaust system, is used to vary the mass of exhaust gas flowing into the turbine. When closed, most of the exhaust gases from the engine are forced to flow through the turbine. When open, the exhaust gases are allowed to bypass the turbine by flowing directly out through the engine’s exhaust pipe. [Figure 6-15]

Figure 6-15. Turbocharger components.

Figure 6-15. Turbocharger components.

Since the temperature of a gas rises when it is compressed, turbocharging causes the temperature of the induction air to increase. To reduce this temperature and lower the risk of detonation, many turbocharged engines use an intercooler. This small heat exchanger uses outside air to cool the hot compressed air before it enters the fuel metering device.

System Operation

On most modern turbocharged engines, the position of the waste gate is governed by a pressure-sensing control mechanism coupled to an actuator. Engine oil directed into or away from this actuator moves the waste gate position. On these systems, the actuator is automatically positioned to produce the desired MAP simply by changing the position of the throttle control.

Other turbocharging system designs use a separate manual control to position the waste gate. With manual control, the manifold pressure gauge must be closely monitored to determine when the desired MAP has been achieved. Manual systems are often found on aircraft that have been modified with aftermarket turbocharging systems. These systems require special operating considerations. For example, if the waste gate is left closed after descending from a high altitude, it is possible to produce a manifold pressure that exceeds the engine’s limitations. This condition, called an overboost, may produce severe detonation because of the leaning effect resulting from increased air density during descent.

Although an automatic waste gate system is less likely to experience an overboost condition, it can still occur. If takeoff power is applied while the engine oil temperature is below its normal operating range, the cold oil may not flow out of the waste gate actuator quickly enough to prevent an overboost. To help prevent overboosting, advance the throttle cautiously to prevent exceeding the maximum manifold pressure limits.

A pilot flying an aircraft with a turbocharger should be aware of system limitations. For example, a turbocharger turbine and impeller can operate at rotational speeds in excess of 80,000 rpm while at extremely high temperatures. To achieve high rotational speed, the bearings within the system must be constantly supplied with engine oil to reduce the frictional forces and high temperature. To obtain adequate lubrication, the oil temperature should be in the normal operating range before high throttle settings are applied. In addition, allow the turbocharger to cool and the turbine to slow down before shutting the engine down. Otherwise, the oil remaining in the bearing housing will boil, causing hard carbon deposits to form on the bearings and shaft. These deposits rapidly deteriorate the turbocharger’s efficiency and service life. For further limitations, refer to the AFM/POH.

High Altitude Performance

As an aircraft equipped with a turbocharging system climbs, the waste gate is gradually closed to maintain the maximum allowable manifold pressure. At some point, the waste gate will be fully closed and further increases in altitude will cause the manifold pressure to decrease. This is the critical altitude, which is established by the aircraft or engine manufacturer. When evaluating the performance of the turbocharging system, be aware that if the manifold pressure begins decreasing before the specified critical altitude, the engine and turbocharging system should be inspected by a qualified aviation maintenance technician to verify the system’s proper operation.