What does innovation mean to you?
To GE Research, innovation means bringing unique technology solutions to life through multidisciplinary expertise, breadth of industry experience and access to industrial scale. And it’s that innovation mindset that has made the century-long partnership between GE Research and GE Aviation so successful. In celebration of GE Aviation’s centennial anniversary, we’re reflecting on the revolutionary technologies of the past, present and future that GE Research and GE Aviation utilize to define flight today over the next century.
A vital component of an aircraft’s success in the air is how a material’s composition, microstructure, and properties interact with the environment. With over 60 years of experience, our materials characterization team at GE Research has acquired substantial domain expertise in the development, analysis, and validation of new materials and coatings for commercial jet engines. GE Aviation leverages this comprehensive suite of capabilities to select the appropriate analysis of characterization techniques that obtain a quick and accurate answer. Being so integrated into the aerospace industry through GE Aviation, we know firsthand the needs for safe, reliable and efficient engines.
One of the most significant technology breakthroughs in materials for the aerospace industry was the introduction of ceramic matrix composites (CMCs). Early on, GE Research led the development of CMCs technology to harness the high temperature capability of ceramics and engineer them into a material as durable as metal. With the leadership and support of Aviation, we turned this promising technology into a commercial reality.
The end product? A high-temperature, lightweight ceramic matrix composite that is one third the weight of its metal counterparts yet is just as durable, and can operate at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit—about 300 degrees higher than most advanced metals. CMCs successfully function in the hottest section of the CFM LEAP turbofan, which is powering hundreds of narrow-body commercial aircrafts already in service today. In an industry where lightweight components and higher operating temperatures translate to better performance and higher efficiency, CMCs are a game-changer.
In addition to driving the creation of new materials, GE Research and Aviation have pioneered the development of innovative coatings for thermal protection that will improve service processes. As demand for more efficient—and therefore much hotter—engine operation increased, so did the need for a coating that could protect metals from the engine’s hot gas path.
Enter thermal barrier coatings (TBCs): thin insulating materials that create a high thermal gradient, decreasing the temperature of the hot gas path and allowing the alloys to operate safely. The need for more durable TBCs is particularly significant in engines that operate in dusty environments, where oxides from dust ingested during takeoff can infiltrate and damage the coating, exposing bare metal to the hot gas path. Newer and better TBCs are still being developed, but the improvement in fuel efficiency due to the lightweight, high temperature capabilities of CMCs and TBCs have enabled aircraft to fly farther and longer than ever before.
With these technology breakthroughs and more, GE Aviation has been inventing the future of flight for 100 years and GE Research has been the innovation powerhouse that will continue to propel flight to new heights. Today, GE Research is helping GE Aviation lead the digital transformation of the aerospace industry and push the electrification of airlines from powering the avionics, electronics and other electrical systems aboard airplanes to the plane’s propulsion system itself. That’s right…an electric engine.
In digital, GE Aviation is driving solutions across its maintenance, repair and overhaul enterprise. With a fleet of 65,000 jet engines, GE Aviation’s services portfolio represents one of the largest growth opportunities for the business and industry in general. One of the key challenges is improving the capacity for servicing jet engines, which new digital-enabled solutions are helping to address.
GE Research is integrating new in-situ inspection and materials technologies with fleet and shop operations to optimize both the time and cost of these services, resulting in more accurate forecasting for when engines need to be taken off-wing as well as predicting during an engine’s operation prior to removal the level of component replacement required at the overhaul. Overall, the deployment of digital technologies is helping to reduce flight disruptions and unnecessary overhauls while increasing aircraft utilization and the number of passengers GE Aviation’s airline customers can serve.
The other big movement taking off is the quest for electric-powered aircraft. It is a growing field with efforts underway from key aerospace industry players and government agencies, like NASA. Through GE Research, GE Aviation is uniquely positioned to lead the way toward enabling the eco-friendly electric skies. One of the key challenges around electric flight is to design an electric propulsion system that is powerful enough, yet also highly compact and light enough in weight, to fly a commercial plane.
Fortunately, GE researchers are able to leverage their world-leading silicon carbide materials and deep experience in electronic drives and motors from GE’s Power business to create the building blocks of such an electric propulsion system. GE Research has spent generations in the energy and transportation industries designing compact, power dense electric power applications, which the Business is now bringing to bear in the aerospace industry to enable robust hybrid electric flight. Sooner than you think, electricity other than lightning will be soaring above us.
The Next 100 Years
As we look ahead to the next 100 years, GE Research is focused on further developing fundamental technologies that will lead to the next breakthrough in the aerospace industry—hypersonic air travel.
At hypersonic speeds exceeding 3,500 MPH, we could reach anywhere on the planet within an hour. As exciting as this sounds, Narendra Joshi, GE Research’s chief scientists for advanced propulsion technologies, believes that hypersonic travel won’t be practical for many decades. To achieve this paradigm shift in high speed flight, many key components must be explored to launch this technology, such as high temperature materials, thermal management, propulsion architecture, and noise reduction. GE Research is prepared for the challenge.
GE Research and GE Aviation have already addressed the challenge of developing high temperature materials to withstand the volcanic-like temperatures within the engine through CMCs and TBCs. But when traveling at Mach 5, there is a need for stronger materials and more advanced cooling systems and TBCs that can withstand the high temperature of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit on the outside of the hypersonic plane as well as inside the engine. To solve this complex technical problem, GE Research is combining expertise in materials with experience in 3D printing to design new architectures in thermal management that can support more advanced propulsion platforms in hypersonic flight, such as rotating detonation engine (RDE) technology.
GE has been developing Rotating Detonation Engine (RDE) technology for nearly five years, which enables a 5x increase in speed and seems to be a promising approach to delivering enough power and thrust to travel at hypersonic speed. But with higher speeds through the air come new issues such as the sonic boom phenomena that occurs when airplanes take-off and fly at such high speeds. GE Research is drawing on its deep expertise in computational fluid dynamics, acoustics, and combustion to tackle this very challenge, with the help of NASA and learnings from GE’s Aviation and Wind businesses. Although there are technical risks in hypersonic flight, GE Research has made significant progress in understanding the technology that will be necessary for ensuring the reliability and functionality of a revolutionized engine.
GE Research has driven the development of advanced propulsion, materials, and other supporting technology in the aerospace industry for many decades. With our interdisciplinary, cross-functional team of researchers, we are seeing, moving, and creating the future of GE. Our special relationship with GE Aviation, as well as GE’s other businesses, provides us with a truly unique perspective on innovation through which we can turn research into reality.
This article originally appeared on the GE Research newsroom.