Turbos have been around for decades, and new advancements in turbo technology continue to emerge each and every year. Turbocharged vehicles used to only make up a small fraction of new cars produced, but now, most new cars and trucks come fitted with turbos.
But some cars and trucks have recently come fitted with a new and unusual kind of turbo—the electric turbo. What is an electric turbo, and how does it work? How is it different from regular turbos? And what does this new technology mean for the future of turbochargers? If you're interested in learning more about electric turbochargers, read on.
What Are Turbochargers?
Turbochargers are forced induction devices that help the engine produce more power during the combustion process by drawing in more air. The more air and fuel there is in the combustion chamber, the more powerful the combustion is. Turbos reuse high-pressure exhaust gases to spin a turbine. The turbine then forces more air into the engine.
You may have also heard of superchargers before. Supers perform the same function as turbos, but instead of using a turbine to pull in more air, they use a pulley. Turbos are generally more efficient than supers because they make use of energy that would otherwise be wasted. However, turbos have a slow throttle response time that results in turbo lag. On the other hand, supers don't have this problem.
What Are Electric Turbochargers and How Do They Work?
What is an electric turbo and how does it work? Electric turbos are the best of both worlds. They have the efficiency of turbos but the responsiveness of supers. Instead of using exhaust gases to spin the turbine, electric turbos use an electric motor and an electric compressor.
When you step on the gas pedal, the motor activates the compressor. The compressor forces cold air into the engine without any turbo lag. Once the turbo is spinning fast enough, the motor and compressor turn themselves off automatically to save energy. The turbo continues to spin for a short while even after the motor turns off due to the exhaust gases and the inertia of the wheels.
There are two kinds of electric turbos currently in existence—the e-booster (used by Volkswagen Group and Mercedez-Benz) and the one-unit e-turbo made by Garret Motion. The e-booster is a turbo that's essentially just a compressor side (no turbine side) paired with an electric motor. It's used side by side with exhaust-driven turbos. The motor-driven turbo provides a quick low-end response from the motor. Once pressure builds, the motor-driven turbo turns off and the exhaust-driven turbo handles the rest.
Garret Motion's e-turbo is a turbo (both compressor and turbine side) paired with a motor. It does more or less the same thing as the e-booster. The motor proves a low-end boost. Once the exhaust pressure builds up, the motor turns itself off. The main difference between this version and the e-booster is that this version allows for the use of a larger compressor for smaller engine displacement.
The Pros and Cons of Electric Turbos
Electric turbos eliminate lag and provide a smooth and instant power boost. But there are also a few downsides to electric turbos. These turbos are built for performance. They provide an instant power boost and save energy by turning themselves off. On the other hand, fuel consumption and emissions are second priorities. This means that electric turbos won't improve your gas mileage as much as traditional turbos—but the added responsiveness usually makes up for this.
They also don't reduce NOx emissions as efficiently as traditional turbos. Luckily, the difference in fuel economy and emissions is small. Traditional turbos reduce fuel consumption by 2% to 6%. Electric turbos reduce it by 2% to 4%—only a 2% difference on the higher end. Traditional turbos can reduce NOx emissions by up to 23% compared to 20% on a diesel engine equipped with an electric turbo.
And because electric turbos are so new, it's difficult to measure just how effective and reliable they actually are. We won't know how much of an improvement electric turbos bring compared to traditional turbos until electric turbos become more widely used and more tests are done to compare the two. As of right now, we know that they reduce throttle response time, are somewhat better performance-wise, and somewhat worse fuel consumption and emissions-wise compared to traditional turbos.
Currently, electric turbos are also expensive because they're a relatively new invention—a really new invention, in fact. The first cars that came standard with electric turbo technology were Audi's SQ6 and SQ7, which were released in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Meanwhile, Garret Motion is ramping up for the production of the first electric turbos for commercial use. Once electric turbos have been around for a while, they'll become much more accessible and affordable for the average driver.
Where Can I Get an Electric Turbo?
Want an electric turbo? You have a few options. You can purchase one of the recently released luxury vehicles (Audi's SQ6 and SQ7 and Volvo's S90, V90, and XC90 SVU) that come equipped with electric turbo technology. There are also a few genuine manufacturers that produce and sell electric turbos, but these turbos are hard to come by and needlessly expensive. Unfortunately, most people will have to wait until production ramps up and costs come down to get their hands on an electric turbo.
You might see electric turbos being sold on sites like Etsy or Amazon for a reasonable price, but we recommend steering clear of these sketchy products. These turbos were fitted with electric motors that aren't much bigger or more powerful than a computer cooling fan and substandard compressors. They can't pressurize air efficiency and are more likely to lead to a decrease in power than an increase. They might be electric turbos by definition, but they're not functional. It's best to wait until actual functional electric turbos become widely available instead of taking a risk with a slapdash replica of the real technology.
Want to turbocharge your car or truck but don't want to wait for electric turbos to become mainstream? Turbo Turbo has new, rebuilt, refurbished, and used turbochargers for sale. We also carry turbo replacement parts for repairing or enhancing your existing turbo. Come and shop with us today for all your turbo needs!