03 Feb
Can the modern internal combustion engine be made more efficient thanks to turbocharging?

How can turbochargers benefit fuel economy?

There has been a notable shift in the automotive industry that has seen efficiency pushed to the forefront of consumers' thinking. The need for economy is being driven by the fact that fuel resources will eventually run out, so sipping them at a more gentle rate is now the aim for any company that's developing a new vehicle.

Naturally, some have tried to surpass the issue altogether. In particular, Tesla has been pioneering the electric vehicle, producing a high-quality product that is a genuine competitor to many of the well-established equivalents.

However, one of the biggest issues with battery-powered cars, vans and trucks is general inconvenience. While the tech infrastructure to support them is gradually being improved across New Zealand – and the rest of the world for that matter – electric vehicles are harder to consistently power.

Turbochargers can boost the efficiency of an internal combustion engine by as much as 30 per cent.

Consequently, the internal combustion engine is not going away any time soon. The average casual motorist or even business driver has gotten used to stopping at a service station, filling up – and leveraging a fuel card – and driving off when it's most convenient to them.

So, if petrol and diesel will continue to reign supreme, what can the automotive industry do to make existing tech more efficient?

Not just performance

Well, that's where the turbocharger comes in. Such units are essentially a bolt-on part of the engine that forces more air – some of which is typically wasted through the exhaust – through the system, in an attempt to garner more power. Traditionally, they have been the mark of performance cars, and are an effective way to get more bang for an engine's buck, without necessarily making it any bigger.

However, today there are a raft of manufacturers attempting to use turbochargers in the pursuit of efficiency and fuel economy. How are they doing this? Well, it all comes down to the aforementioned size.

Turbochargers are essentially making it easier to get the same level of performance from an engine with four-cylinders, when six would have been required in the past. It's naturally down to a lot of complex engineering, but engines that are fitted with the most progressive turbochargers are increasingly efficient.

Boosting efficiency

In fact, contributor to The New York Times Lawrence Ulrich explained that the boosts to fuel economy can stretch to anywhere between 10-30 per cent. Moreover, Mr Ulrich also surmised that consumers have been quick to join the turbocharger revolution, with some actually preferring the new smaller, yet more efficient, engines than the larger, less effective older ones.

The change in mentality can perhaps best be seen in the US. Across North America, just seven per cent of all new cars sold featured turbochargers in 2011. Today, that figure stands at the 21 per cent mark.

An efficient turbocharger can recycle some of the wasted gas typically expelled through the exhaust.An efficient turbocharger can recycle some of the wasted gas typically expelled through the exhaust.

Consumer sentiment is certainly central to the success or failure of the efficient, turbocharged engine going forward. Fortunately, it appears as though the vast majority of people are happy with the differences, as the newest vehicles have been so well engineered that any changes in performance are negligible, meaning that today's cars are just as driveable as ever.

"We're saying there's a lot of room left for the internal-combustion engine to improve its performance. The consumer still wants a vehicle that's fun to drive," explained Tony Schultz, vice president of Honeywell Turbo Technologies, as quoted by Forbes.

Ultimately, it appears as though turbocharging technologies are only likely to grow in popularity going forward. Fortunately, as more manufacturers make the effort to leverage them, it seems likely that the boosts to overall efficiency and fuel economy will be passed on to consumers.