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Most of todays truck transmissions have between 10 and 18 gear ratios in order to move the heavy loads expected of them. These ratios range from a low of 15:1, 16:1, or even 17:1 up to overdrive ratios of .73:1 and .66:1. Automatic transmissions on the other hand usually have only 4 to 6 gear ratios ranging from a low of usually not more than 6 or 7:1 and ending up with the same overdrive ratios of .73 and .66:1, yet Automatic transmissions are expected to haul loads that can equal to their 18 speed standard transmission cousins. So how does an automatic transmission with a low gear ratio of only 4.7:1 haul an 80,000 pound load? That is where the torque converter comes in to play. Torque converters multiply the input torque by as much as 3 or 4 to one although in most truck applications the multiplication is held to around 2 to one. So lets take the above transmission example with a 4.7:1 first gear ratio and a torque converter with a multiplication factor of 2.47:1 and see what it can do for us. The torque converter multiplies the input torque just as a gear ratio multiplies the output torque in a transmission so the overall output available to drive the vehicle amounts to the gear ratio times the torque converter multiplication factor or 4.7 times 2.47 giving an equivalent ratio of 11.6:1 which is ample to move the load. A torque converter multiplication factor automatically lessens as the vehicle picks up speed so when the transmission is in first the overall ratio can change from the maximum of 11.6:1 all the way to the actual first gear ratio of 4.7:1, so rather than having only four or six ratios the torque converter allows an automatic transmission to have a constantly variable ratio within the limits of the actual gear ratios and the torque converters multiplication factor.

What is a torque converter?

A torque converter is a device that acts as a fluid coupling to transmit power smoothly from a power source, (engine), to the rest of the drive train. A basic fluid coupler can accomplish this but at a considerable loss of power and efficiency. Torque converters serve the same purpose through certain ranges of their operation but are also capable of multiplying torque by as much as 4 to 1 in some applications though in most current on highway uses the multiplication factor is normally approx. 2 to 1.

The torque converter works in conjunction with the transmission to match the engine output to the torque requirements (load) at the drive wheels through the entire operating range of the vehicle. In a lighter duty application the converter replaces the mass of the flywheel and is connected to the crankshaft with the use of a flex-plate, a flexible metal disc which allows the torque converter to expand as it is loaded and multiplying torque.

In a heavy-duty application a flywheel must still be used to generate sufficient mass to provide the inertia for the engine to run smoothly and will have one or more flex-plates attached to the flywheel and the torque converter.

Light Duty Light duty vehicles use a one piece torque converter that is not designed to be overhauled. The shell of the torque converter is made from two halves welded together. The rear half is shaped like a hollowed out donut when viewed from the side and the front half is usually flatter. The front half will have a pilot stub that engages the rear of the crankshaft to support the weight of the converter. The rear half shape, (hollowed out donut), is called a torus. There is a stub shaft called the pump drive hub welded to the centre of the rear half. The rear half contains the vanes that make up the driving member known as the pump or impeller of the torque converter. Inside the front half we find the turbine of the torque converter which also shaped like a hollowed out donut this is the driven member of the torque converter. Although light duty converters are not designed to be serviced it is quite commonly done in the aftermarket. The converter is cut apart serviced and then welded back together again this procedure is not recommended by manufacturers however. Heavy Duty In Heavy duty application a torque that has the two halves of the shell bolted together. This type of torque converter is designed to be overhauled by separating the shell halves. This would procedure is normally performed when the transmission is removed for service, inspection of the torque converter internal components at this time is highly recommended, or when a drive-line problem is suspected to be in the torque converter.

Components: The major components of a torque converter are the pump or impeller, which is attached to the inside of the rear half of the torque converter shell or housing. This is the element that forces transmission fluid against turbine to move the vehicle, both pump and impeller are used but by using the term impeller it will not be confused with the hydraulic pump of the transmission. Since the impeller is attached to the converter housing and it in turn is connected to the engine, whenever the engine is running the impeller turns with it.

The next component is the turbine; the turbine sits inside the converter housing but is not mechanically connected to it. The turbine is the only member or part of the torque converter that is attached to the transmission. The turbine is splined to the transmission input-shaft and causes it to rotate when conditions are correct.

The third component common, (and essential), to the operation of any torque converter is the stator. The stator is key to torque multiplication and without it the torque converter would be little more than a fluid coupling. The stator is usually a two piece unit consisting of an inner hub and an outer wheel. The inner hub is splined to a shaft that projects from the front pump of the transmission called either the stator support shaft or the stator ground shaft.

Either term is acceptable but the important point to note is that this shaft does not turn it is solidly connected to the front of the transmission and serves to anchor the stator inner hub.

The outer wheel of the stator is connected to the inner hub by a one way type clutch, either roller type or sprag type. This arrangement allows the stator to freewheel in one direction of rotation but it will lock up and remain stationary in the other direction, the necessity for this will be explained as we go on. Many different types of stators are used for many different vehicle and vocational applications such as fixed stators that do not freewheel and variable pitch stators that can change the torque multiplication factor to adapt to certain operating conditions.

Torque converter operation The converter must be full of fluid at all times this is prioritized by the transmission hydraulic pump. If fluid level drops in the converter it would be like having air in a hydraulic system and efficiency would be poor, in fact if too much air is present no transmission of power would be possible. With the engine running, fluid is forced to the outside of the impeller by centrifugal force. Because the rear half of the converter is shaped like a hollowed out donut, (the torus), the fluid is also directed forward toward the turbine. A series of curved blades are attached to the impeller and one half of the split guide ring is attached to the blades. The split guide ring is used both to strengthen the blades or fins of the impeller and to direct the flow of oil to a specific location in the converter, namely to contact the blades of the turbine. Fluid is forced to flow through the blades and around the split-guide ring by the centrifugal force created by the rotation of the engine. Fluid exits the outer edge of the impeller blades and is directed towards the turbine The turbine sits in front of and very close to the impeller, clearances can be as little as 10 to 20 thousandths of an inch, and inside the front housing of the converter. The turbine shaft or input shaft is splined to the turbine and provides input to the transmission. The turbine has no mechanical connection to the impeller. This fluid being directed at it makes it turn under the correct conditions in the same way as a running fan that is directed at a stationary fan tends to turn the blades on the stationary fan by air currents alone. Although the front half of the torque converter housing is usually somewhat flat in shape the turbine shell is, as the impeller, shaped like a hollowed out donut. The turbine has a series of blades that are curved much more drastically than the blades in the impeller. The other half of the split-guide ring is attached to the blades, again both to provide strength to the blades and to direct the fluid in a circular pattern. Fluid strikes the blades at the outer edge and flows through the blades and around the split guide ring. Energy within fluid is transferred to the turbine causing it to turn under correct conditions. Fluid exits the inner edge of the turbine blades, near the center and is directed back towards the impeller. Fluid exiting the turbine like this would flow back to the impeller in a direction which would actually oppose its rotation, but before it reaches the impeller it is directed toward the stator.

The stator sits in between the impeller and the turbine. Remember that the stator center hub is splined to the stator support or ground shaft. The stator support is part of the front pump assembly of the transmission and remains stationary. Fluid leaving the turbine is moving opposite the direction of impeller rotation. Fluid striking the stator blades in this direction causes the outside wheel to lock up on the one way clutch. The curvature of the stator blades redirects the fluid back to the impeller in the same direction as impeller rotation. The fluid exiting the stator at this point assists the impellers rotation. The sharp redirection of the fluid causes the fluid to accelerate and run through the impeller again, leaving the impeller blades at a higher rate of speed than would be possible by the impellers rotation alone. This causes increased pressure on the turbine blades and therefore multiplies the available torque. It is important to note that any multiplication in torque must naturally be accompanied by a corresponding decrease in output speed.

Torque converter fluid flow. Torque converter fluid flow falls into two categories, the first of these is vortex oil flow. Vortex oil flow is the flow of fluid from the impeller blades through the turbine blades then through the stator blades and back to the impeller. This oil flow is always present throughout the torque converters operational range. Vortex oil flow is at a maximum when the torque converter is at peak torque multiplication and drops of correspondingly as multiplication decreases.

The other fluid flow in the torque converter is known as rotary flow. Rotary flow is the flow of fluid that follows the rotation of the converter housing. Rotary flow again is always present throughout the torque converters operational range but is at a minimum at peak torque multiplication and increases correspondingly as multiplication decreases.

The converter has two distinct operational phases, the torque multiplication phase and the coupling phase. Torque Multiplication Phase
This phase starts with the engine running and the transmission in gear. At this stage there is insufficient impeller speed to exert enough pressure on the turbine to overcome the resistance of the vehicle weight and cause the turbine to turn. As the accelerator is depressed vortex oil flow increases until it puts enough pressure on the turbine to start it turning. The amount of pressure required obviously will depend on factors such as vehicle load or weight and incline of the road etc. However it is important to note that the maximum torque increase will occur when the engine is turning at its maximum speed with the turbine held stationary, this point is called full stall. Following this statement we can determine that the torque increase is a direct result of the difference in speed between the impeller, (engine speed), and the turbine, (transmission input speed) plus the intensifying effect caused by the stator redirecting the fluid. To follow the process, centrifugal force, caused by the rotating converter housing, drives the fluid to the outside of the impeller torus. The curvature of the housing forces the fluid forward toward the turbine, this vortex oil flow hits the turbine blades and as it goes through their curved surfaces it exerts force on the blades to turn the turbine. The curvature of the turbine blades is designed to allow maximum transfer of force from the fluid to the blades. As the fluid exits near the center of the turbine it flows to the face of the stator blades, fluid flow in this direction will cause the stator to lock up on its one-way clutch. Because the stator is stationary its blades sharply redirect the fluid so it is sent back to the center of the impeller in the same direction as its rotation and at a higher speed. This redirection actually assists the rotation of the impeller. The fluid then starts its journey again and impacts against the turbine with more force than the first time. Vortex flow can be likened to a whirlwind or tornado inside the torque converter housing and will intensify until stall speed is reached or the turbine starts to turn.

As the turbine starts turning vortex flow will decrease and will continue to do so as the speed of the turbine catches up to the speed of the impeller. As the speed of the turbine increases the torque multiplication factor is also decreasing and will eventually cease as the turbine speed reaches 90 to 95% of impeller speed. Rotary oil flow is at a maximum (maximum centrifugal force) when the turbine is at 90 to 95% of impeller speed. The rate of both the vortex oil flow and torque multiplication decreases as turbine speed increases The rate of rotary oil flow increases with the increase in centrifugal force. As the turbine speed approaches 90% of impeller speed vortex oil flow and torque multiplication drop to minimum and rotary oil flow is up to maximum (maximum centrifugal force) Coupling Phase This phase starts when the turbine approaches 90% of impeller speed Vortex oil flow is at a minimum at this point. Rotary oil flow is at maximum. Rotary oil flow strikes the back side of the stator blades unlocking stator one-way clutch (stator freewheels). The impeller can only drive the turbine at approximately 90% to 95% efficiency hydraulically. Once the conditions are correct the converter lock-up clutch (if equipped) is applied. The clutch locks the turbine to the converter front cover improving efficiency to 100%. The inherent slippage in the torque converter is eliminated increasing fuel efficiency by 5 to 10%.

Converter in and out oil circuits

Converter in circuit starts at Main Pressure Regulator Valve (MPRV). Pressurized fluid flows into converter in between the outside of the stator support shaft and the inside of oil pump drive hub attached to the back of the converter. A torque converter pressure relief valve controls the maximum converter working pressure. In light duty vehicles this pressure would be near 70 to 80 PSI, in heavy duty vehicles this pressure can be as high as 200 to 250 PSI. Some transmissions use this oil circuit for partial transmission lubrication most transmissions will have a drain-back valve of some kind to prevent fluid from draining back to the transmission sump through the front lube circuit when the engine is shut off.

The converter out circuit starts at the torque converter. Fluid flows out of the converter in between the outside of the turbine shaft and inside of stator support. The converter check valve is a valve in the converter in or out circuit, usually a ball check type valve that maintains minimum converter working pressure and prevents converter drain back through the rear lube circuit when the engine is shut off. Fluid then flows from the transmission through a cooler line to the oil cooler. Fluid flows from the cooler through the other cooler line and back to the transmission. The fluid then flows through the rear lube circuits and back to the sump of the transmission.

Converter lock-up clutch.

Several designs have been used to eliminate the inherent slippage of torque converters. The most popular and the predominate one in use currently, is the fiber disc friction style. A large metal or fiber disc is splined to the front of the turbine and turns with it. A piston is installed between the fiber disc and the inside of the front converter housing and is hydraulically sealed by o-rings. Between the fiber disc and the turbine a metal pressure plate or backing plate is installed. This plate is permanently fixed to the converter housing and therefore turns with it. When conditions are correct pressurized fluid is directed from the transmission hydraulic circuits through the hollow center of the input shaft to a cavity behind the piston. This causes the piston to move back towards the fiber disc and sandwiches it between the piston and the backing plate. Because the fiber disc is splined to the turbine this action locks the turbine to the converter housing and causes it to turn at the same speed thereby eliminating the slippage and increasing efficiency to 100%. At this point in the torque converter all three elements and the fluid turn basically as one unit. See exploded view on next page.