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Turbocharging vs. Supercharging

There are many misconceptions about high altitude flight and how it is achieved, whether that be through the use of turbocharger or supercharger engines and their application of forced induction systems. As most general aviation piston engines are typically aspirated, this results in various flight instructors, commercial pilots, and private pilots who have minimal practical experience working with forced induction systems. To get a better understanding of how turbochargers and superchargers compare and contrast, we will briefly go over how they work, allowing you to use this information for future applications.

Both turbochargers and superchargers depend on Boyle's Law, a simple principle that was developed over 350 years ago to help identify and quantify the relationship between pressure and volume. According to Boyle's law, the pressure of a gas is inversely proportional to the volume in which it is contained because, as volume decreases, the pressure of the gas increases, and vice versa.

However, turbochargers and superchargers are different in some ways, despite sharing the function of increasing an engine’s air pressure prior to combustion via a compressor. This directly correlates with the maximum air value forced into an engine which increases the maximum amount of fuel available to be combined, which will result in more power generation. That is why turbochargers and superchargers fall under the broader category of forced induction systems. Such a process permits these mechanisms to efficiently beat the average performance of an aircraft that employs an aspirating engine.

How Turbine Engines Work

A turbine engine is simple in terms of operation as it only depends on the turbine wheel, which is powered by re-routed hot gases. After that, an impeller is driven to collect and compress the ambient air. As explained in Boyle's Law, after compressing the air, molecules move closer to one another in a forceful manner, resulting in increased pressure and temperature for the entire mass. After the air is compressed, it is moved forward and delivered to the engine's manifold and used for combustion when mixed with fuel.

The Waste Gate and Critical Altitude

The waste gate is a component that controls the amount of exhaust gas that travels to the turbine. Oil pressure generally actuates the waste gate and the structure is typically kept more open at lower altitudes. Therefore, maintaining various pressures allows a small amount of exhaust gas to reach the turbine. When at critical altitudes, the waste gate is completely closed to help the impeller process by providing as much air as possible by guiding the exhaust through the turbine. Therefore, any further increase in altitude may result in a loss of manifold pressure and a decrease in performance.


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