Gas-powered cars work by means of an internal-combustion engine, which means that the engine runs by the process of creating a continuous series of controlled explosions, which in turn cause pistons to move up and down at a high rate of speed, turning a crankshaft and eventually causing the vehicle to move. And while that's a bit of a generalization, it is how modern engines function, albeit at a high level.
And to make those controlled explosions occur, three elements are required - air, gas, and fire (or in this case, a spark). Without all three, no engine will work. With just the right amounts of each, a car will function and do all the things we expect of them, like drive us to the movies and take the kids to soccer practice.
But what if you could increase the amount of air and fuel into an engine?
Getting More Performance
During the evolution of the modern engine, there have been many times when someone wanted to make the engines produce more power in order to make the car go faster. In the early years, this was achieved by simply making the engines bigger, which produced more energy and power. But as cars evolved, the physics behind engines showed us that simply increasing the size of engines wasn't going to work long-term, because the size and weight of the engine began to outpace the increase in performance. In other words, the increased weight beat the increased power, and the cars started to become slower.
After this was realized, the next years brought various modifications and advancements, as engines became more efficient, lighter, and utilized various configurations to optimize the power realized from the same basic principle. But gradually, the idea grew - namely, that there must be some way to increase the output of an engine, without increasing its size or weight, or developing new kinds of metal, and so forth.
Introducing the Turbocharger
Eventually, engineers began to take a fresh look at the basic principles behind the internal combustion function in engines. And as they analyzed the physics behind internal combustion, they realized that if they could optimize the flow of air into the combustion chamber, they could likewise increase the amount of fuel into the same chamber, and increase the size of the controlled explosion at the heart of the process - literally increasing the 'bang for the buck' of pretty much any engine.
And that's how the turbocharger was conceived. Automotive engineers realized that, while gas was relatively easy to pump into the combustion chamber in whatever quantity was desired, air was more difficult to harness and inject. And without enough air, there wouldn't be enough combustion, since air is crucial to any flame. So, the engineers designed a device that would concentrate air flow and force it into a car's combustion chamber, to combine with an increase in gas flowing into the same chamber, to make a bigger 'boom' that produced more power and made the car go faster.
How Turbochargers Work
That process of air induction is at the core of how turbochargers work. Turbochargers work on the principles of forced induction, which simply means that they take in air, concentrate it, and send it into the engine. Because there's more air in the engine, the fuel pump and fuel injection can increase the amount of gas in the engine, thus increasing the power output of the engine.
This increases the power-to-weight ratio that was at the heart of the problem with simply increasing engine size in years past, and makes engines with a turbocharger attached much more powerful than otherwise identical engines that don't have a turbocharger attached.
Turbochargers get their power by taking the flow of exhaust from the engine, and uses it to spin a turbine and air pump. The turbocharger turbine spins fast - really fast, up to 150,000 rotations per minute, well in advance of the engine itself.
Because turbochargers work with such extremes of heat and speed, they can become worn and damaged. The causes of turbocharger problems typically boil down to one of a few root causes. Usually, the causes revolve around the obstruction of air, or excessive oil getting into the turbine chamber. The air intake, manifold, and oil supply are common sources of problems with turbochargers.
However, it should be noted that turbochargers are often misdiagnosed as the source of engine problems, when it turns out that problems with other components and parts are actually to blame. The turbocharger can be a vital component to engine performance, and if it's properly maintained, can greatly increase engine performance.