With any form of technology, the yearning for improvement and more efficiency is ever present, and aircraft engines are no different. Since the creation of the engine, industrialists have been searching for any way that they can increase their functionality and abilities. With most piston engines, only one-third of energy is harnessed for work while the majority is wasted as exhaust. Since their inception, improvements to this potential energy has been found in the form of turbochargers and superchargers, which enables engines to gain a significant powerboost.
Before the abilities of turbochargers can be discussed, however, it is important to look back on their history. The first patented turbocharger was in 1905, created by Dr. Alfred Buchi, whose supercharger functioned using exhaust gas pulses. By 1915, turbocharged diesel engines had their first prototype, but these were not quite efficient and were unable to maintain enough boost pressure. It was not until 1920 that a turbocharged 12-cylinder Liberty engine was installed on an aircraft and taken up to an altitude of 33,113 feet, much to the surprise of its creators, who thought the turbocharger would simply aid in a long fall or violent pull out. The pilot did not stop there, as the very next year he brought his plane up to 40,800 feet.
Turbochargers found much more improvement during World War II, and aircraft such as the B-36 were fitted with six piston engines, each with 28 cylinders. The engineer handbook of the B-36 stated that, without the technology of turbochargers, the same engines would need 90 cylinders each to provide the same performance. Up to the 1980’s and beyond, altitude abilities continued to increase, reaching 54,574 feet with the Grob Strato 2C and later 66,980 feet with the Boeing Condor in 1986. With each decade, the abilities and promise of turbochargers continued to increase.
Horsepower, an engine’s unit of power measurement, always depends on the amount of air and fuel an engine burns. Specifically, it is the density of the air’s mixture that creates the amount of power generated by the engine. To burn more fuel and increase an engine’s power, there is only the choice of either creating a larger engine, or by creating a smaller engine that holds the ability to pull in air as a larger engine would. In the case of turbochargers, the ability of a smaller engine to breathe as if it was a larger engine is exactly what is achieved.
As an aircraft increases in altitude, the density and oxygen mixture of air decreases in unison, creating a loss of power equivalent to about 3 to 4 horsepower loss for every 1,000 foot climb. Although the engine may be able to suck in the same amount of air as at sea level, the density and oxygen mix is much less, resulting in a normal piston engine only being able to produce half the power at 18,000 feet as it would be able to at sea level. Aircraft turbochargers solve this problem by creating more pressure through compression of air that enters and generates more mass of air that collects in the cylinders on each intake.
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