Design and Function of a Turbocharger: Bearing Systems

The turbocharger's basic functions have not fundamentally changed since the times of Alfred Büchi. A turbocharger consists of a compressor and a turbine connected by a common shaft. The exhaust-gas-driven turbine supplies the drive energy for the compressor.

Design and Function of a Turbocharger

The turbocharger shaft and turbine wheel assembly rotates at speeds up to 300,000 rpm. Turbocharger life should correspond to that of the engine, which could be 1,000,000 km for a commercial vehicle. Only sleeve bearings specially designed for turbochargers can meet these high requirements at a reasonable cost.

Turbocharger bearing system (cut-away model)

Turbocharger bearing system (cut-away model)

Radial bearing system

With a sleeve bearing, the shaft turns without friction on an oil film in the sleeve bearing bushing. For the turbocharger, the oil supply comes from the engine oil circuit. The bearing system is designed such that brass floating bushings, rotating at about half shaft speed, are situated between the stationary centre housing and the rotating shaft. This allows these high speed bearings to be adapted such that there is no metal contact between shaft and bearings at any of the operating points. Besides the lubricating function, the oil film in the bearing clearances also has a damping function, which contributes to the stability of the shaft and turbine wheel assembly. The hydrodynamic load-carrying capacity and the bearing damping characteristics are optimised by the clearances. The lubricating oil thickness for the inner clearances is therefore selected with respect to the bearing strength, whereas the outer clearances are designed with regard to the bearing damping. The bearing clearances are only a few hundredths of a millimetre.

The one-piece bearing system is a special form of a sleeve bearing system. The shaft turns within a stationary bushing, which is oil scavenged from the outside. The outer bearing clearance can be designed specifically for the bearing damping, as no rotation takes place.

Axial-thrust bearing system

Neither the fully floating bushing bearings nor the single-piece fixed floating bushing bearing system support forces in axial direction. As the gas forces acting on the compressor and turbine wheels in axial direction are of differing strengths, the shaft and turbine wheel assembly is displaced in an axial direction. The axial bearing, a sliding surface bearing with tapered lands, absorbs these forces. Two small discs fixed on the shaft serve as contact surfaces. The axial bearing is fixed in the centre housing. An oil-deflecting plate prevents the oil from entering the shaft sealing area.

Oil drain

The lubricating oil flows into the turbocharger at a pressure of approximately 4 bar. As the oil drains off at low pressure, the oil drain pipe diameter must be much larger than the oil inlet pipe. The oil flow through the bearing should, whenever possible, be vertical from top to bottom. The oil drain pipe should be returned into the crankcase above the engine oil level. Any obstruction in the oil drain pipe will result in back pressure in the bearing system. The oil then passes through the sealing rings into the compressor and the turbine.


The centre housing must be sealed against the hot turbine exhaust gas and against oil loss from the centre housing. A piston ring is installed in a groove on the rotor shaft on both the turbine and compressor side. These rings do not rotate, but are firmly clamped in the centre housing. This contactless type of sealing, a form of labyrinth seal, makes oil leakage more difficult due to multiple flow reversals, and ensures that only small quantities of exhaust gas escape into the crankcase.


Turbocharger for passenger car gasoline applications with water-cooled bearing housing

Turbocharger for passenger car gasoline applications with water-cooled bearing housing

Petrol engines, where the exhaust gas temperatures are 200 to 300 °C higher than in diesel engines, are generally equipped with water-cooled centre housings. During operation of the engine, the centre housing is integrated into the cooling circuit of the engine. After the engine's shutdown, the residual heat is carried away by means of a small cooling circuit, which is driven by a thermostatically controlled electric water pump.