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I've heard the term overboost quite a lot.

What is "bad" overboost?

What is an overboost problem?

What will happen to my turbo engine if I don't fix it?

Edit: apparently there is a good type where the engine produces more power for 5 seconds or so. Why just for say 5 seconds and not all the time?

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tl;dr: Overboost is too much air, usually at too high a temperature. Detonation is likely to follow.

Remember, the engine is just an air pump. All the turbo is doing is making it easier for air molecules to get into the intake side of the engine. Of course, the turbo has finite efficiency: it is pushing in more air molecules but it's also increasing their net energy (i.e., intake air temperature goes up).

The engine needs to add enough fuel molecules to combust with those air molecules. Because of the increase in air temperature, it sometimes needs to add even more fuel as a coolant (which seems wasteful because it is). The engine's goal is to make sure that there's just the right air-fuel mixture at just the right temperature to ignite exactly when it's supposed to.

Too much boost (overboost) can lead to two big problems (well, lots of possible problems but let's stay at a fundamental level for now):

Lean is bad: If you have too little fuel for too much air, you have a lean condition. In this situation, the fuel-air mixture is actually easier to ignite with increasing temperatures (e.g., under boost). In fact, it can sometimes suddenly ignite due to hot spots in the cylinder or just the fact that the whole mixture is above its activation energy.

Quoting Corky Bell of Maximum Boost fame:

Any misfires at full throttle induced by a lean condition are serious and must be dealt with prior to operating at that boost level again. A lack of fuel raises chamber temperatures dramatically. Heat is the cause of detonation, which is the nemesis of high performance.

The consequence is that the mixture in the cylinder ignites at the wrong time. This cause all kinds of bad mechanical problems, sounds awful, can break your engine and definitely doesn't make you feel speedy.

Terminal detonation is exactly what it sounds like: critical pieces of the engine itself explode away.

Too much energy is bad: It's possible to have too much energy in the system even when things are going "perfectly." Imagine a theoretical system where your turbo is 100% efficient (adds no heat during compression), your fueling system can pump in arbitrary amounts of fuel and your engine computer can keep up with all the demands. Even in that highly imaginary situation, if you put enough energy in the cylinder, it's going to break. The fundamental structural components of the system will eventually fail given enough stress.

In real life, such a perfect system is rare to impossible given our finite budgets. However, ...

apparently there is a good type where the engine produces more power for 5 seconds or so. Why just for say 5 seconds and not all the time?

The answer is math (specifically probability). This sort of feature is most useful in auto racing where the driver needs that little extra edge to make the critical pass. They're trading a burst of energy for an increase in system temperature, net strain on the engine and briefly increased risk of total system failure. Roll the dice and hope it doesn't come up snake eyes during that five seconds.

In a race, that's often a reasonable trade-off. Obviously, those of us driving on the street are usually operating without the benefit of an auto-racing team's budget.

Funnily enough, overboost is usually straightforward to correct. It's almost certainly a wastegate problem:

A wastegate is a valve that diverts exhaust gases away from the turbine wheel in a turbocharged engine system.

By diverting exhaust gases away, the engine computer can hold the turbine to a peak speed. As a consequence, the compressor side will also be limited to a peak boost. If something happens to keep the wastegate from functioning as needed, your turbo is going to try to keep accelerating up to infinity.

As we have discussed, it isn't going to get there. Boom!

  • 1
    "It's almost certainly a wastegate problem" - the story of my Legacy GT. Sigh. Anyway, another method that manufacturers utilize to control boost is to introduce a BOV/BPV that leaks while in boost. Subaru does this as the OEM BPV in my Legacy begins to leak around 10 PSI. I had swapped it out for an aftermarket unit which did not leak and I was overboosting to 21 PSI with an ECU tune set to open the wastegate on base spring pressure alone. Not good. Returning to the leaky OEM BPV allowed boost to be controlled again and brought under 18 PSI. Obviously not ideal, but, it's a wastegate problem. – Ellesedil May 11 '17 at 19:36
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Boost crams more fuel and air into an engine. With more fuel and air you get more power, but if you cram in too much the air fuel mixture will ignite prematurely. This phenomenon is know as preignition. Preignition has many causes but in this case, when too much fuel and air is compressed it gets too hot and spontaneously ignites. Preignition leads to detonation. Detonation or pining is when two flame fronts collide. The first flame front is caused by the preignition and the second by the spark plug at the correct time. The condition has a very distinct sound to it.

Both preignition and detonation are bad. By itself preignition causes an opposing rotational force on the engine which is hard on the connecting rods and crank shaft. Detonation releases a tremendous amount of energy when the flame fronts collide. This release of energy over an extended amount of time will damage engine components, shatter valves, blow holes in pistons, shatter rings, etc...

Engines normally have some margin for error, meaning that they tuned to produce less boost than the maximum amount that they can tolerate. Overboost pushes the boost to the maximum amount or beyond.

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Overboost is a higher turbocharger output pressure than the rated value. A turbo engine has a rated pressure, and the waste gate or the blowoff valve is triggered when pressure rises to a higher value.

There are 2 types of overboost:

  • intentional
  • accidental

These days, some engines are built to allow a certain amount of overboost (e.g. +0.3 bar for 30 seconds). This means the engine can safely handle the extra boost. The time limit is usually a thermal limit: more boost means more heat in the engine, and the cooling system may not have enough capacity to deal with this indefinitely. The ECU control the boost level, and lowers the boost pressure (by opening the waste gate or blowoff valve) after the time limit.

This strategy recognizes you rarely need full power for long periods of time. So it allows you to have extra power when you really need it, without having to install a larger engine that can handle that peak power indefinitely.

Accidental overboost can be caused by e.g. an malfunctioning waste gate or blowoff valve, where the ECU can no longer control the boost pressure.

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