- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

An engine innovation that helped the United States win World War II is being revitalized by Ford and making a bid to help drivers win the war on the fuel pump.

Turbochargers are tiny turbines that spin at remarkable speeds to help pack an engine’s combustion chambers with more air. When an engine gets more air, it can burn more fuel and produce more power.

During World War II, turbos fitted to aircraft engines compensated for less oxygen at altitude so planes could fly higher without sacrificing combat-crucial engine power.

You’d be right to wonder how having the ability to burn more fuel and make more power could possibly make your car more efficient: It’s because the boost a turbocharger gives the engine - but only when you need the power - means it can be much smaller.

Most of the time you don’t need the engine’s full power, so having an engine sized for the occasional times when you want power is highly inefficient. Strap on a turbocharger (or two), and you can run an engine half the size and never notice.

Turbocharged engines have been sort of a specialty, targeted mostly at the performance market. That’s going to change. Quickly.

Last fall, Ford invited me to its engine-building “skunk works” near the Dearborn, Mich., headquarters for a sneak peek at the development of the “Ecoboost” twin-turbocharged V-6, which will debut in just a couple months in the 2010 Lincoln MKS and MKT luxury rides, and Ford’s unique Flex crossover.

With two tiny turbochargers that spin at about 200,000 revolutions per minute, the 3.5-liter Ecoboost V-6 can generate, on demand, the grunt of a V-8 engine that might be 50 percent larger. Ford said the 3.5-liter Ecoboost V-6 will make about 340 horsepower, which is more than you’ll get from the everyday V-8. But because the Ecoboost is much smaller, it is expected to use about 20 percent less fuel.

The power to spin a turbocharger’s compressor is free; it comes from the cyclonic energy in the engine’s 1,700-degree exhaust.

Soon to come will be similarly power-packed four-cylinder Ecoboost engines that retain four-cylinder fuel economy, but pump out the power and torque of a V-6. Ford is betting big on its Ecoboost strategy: By 2012, it will be fitting 500,000 vehicles each year with Ecoboost engines.

Early turbochargers had a reputation for being high-maintenance, but new designs and advances in materials have all but eliminated those concerns. Ford engineers tell of an extreme test their Ecoboost prototype engines had to pass: The engine is run at full power for six minutes then immediately shut down.

This used to be a turbocharger developer’s nightmare, as the incredible heat from a hard-running engine that was quickly shut down would “cook” the high-precision bearings that support the compressor shaft. But turbocharger durability innovations now have made this concern inconsequential. To pass the test, the Ecoboost development engines endured the high-power/shutdown test 1,500 times in succession.

Alex Ismail, the president of passenger vehicles for Honeywell Turbo Technologies, the company supplying the turbos for the Ecoboost engines, told me turbocharged engine technology has become “the sweet spot” of the auto industry. Mr. Ismail said as the nation’s newfound interest in reducing energy consumption and the environmental impact of auto mobiles means going smaller, turbocharged engines will become more common.

Mr. Ismail also said Honeywell recently initiated a new, companywide manufacturing system that’s going to generate significant gains in productivity and quality. He hopes the Honeywell Operating System means turbochargers, which have a lot of high-precision pieces and have never been what you’d call cheap to manufacture, can be more competitively priced in the future.

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