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Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant: The World’s Largest and Most Powerful Jet Engine is Getting Bigger

June 17, 2015
Building something new usually takes a lot of brains, effort and time. When GE decided to put blades made from untested carbon fiber composites inside a brand new jet engine, replacing titanium with what was essentially plastic, it also required a lot of nerves.
“The design team woke up every morning thinking about it, and went to bed every night thinking about it,” says David Joyce, chief executive of GE Aviation. “It was such a radical change in design.”

Top: A GE90 engine on a brand new China Airlines Boeing 777. The spinning front fan has 22 composite blades. The fan itsef is 128 inches in diameter. GIF credit: GE Reports /Adam Senatori. Above: In 1988, GE flew  to the Farnborough Air Show a plane powered by the GE36 unducted turbofan engine with composite blades. The engine didn’t take off, but the technology did. GIF credit: GE Reports

The result was the GE90, the world’s largest and most powerful jet engine, and the bet, which took place 20 years ago, keeps paying off. “It was an investment that wasn’t just for the GE90,“ Joyce said at the Paris Air Show this week.

Nick Kray, consulting engineer for composite design at GE Aviation, helped develop the GE90 fan blade.

Two giant GE90s in one shot: The first application of the blade technology was the GE90 engine built for Boeing 777. The engine was certified 20 years ago and GE is still building it for brand new 777 planes, like this China Airlines jet at the Paris Air Show. Image credit: Adam Senatori

GE’s next engine, the GEnx, used composites for fan blades but also for the fan casing, a new application of the material that helped the engine shed hundreds of pounds.

The latest engines like the LEAP and the GE9X and also standing on the shoulders of the GE90 giant, and adding the newest materials and technologies such as heat-resistant ceramic matrix composites and 3D printing. “We have a really nice suite of technologies to sample,” Joyce said.

The next engine with composites blades and also other parts was the GEnx. Here it’s powering the Vietnam Airlines Dreamliner over Paris during a routine that has since become a YouTube sensation. Image credit: GE Reports/Adam Senatori

But GE Aviation is not the only business with access to this high-tech buffet. For example, aircraft engine technologies have found applications in gas turbines for power generation and wind turbine design. “We all share and leverage what scientists at our Global Research Centers develop,” Joyce said. “That’s the idea of the ‘GE store.’” See our list below:

The fan of the LEAP jet engine designed by CFM International, a 50/50 joint company set up by GE Aviation and France’s Safran (Snecma), is using woven carbon fiber blades developed by Snecma. Image credit: GE Reports/Adam Senatori

LEAP engines will also have for the first time 3D-printed fuel nozzles (the round part above) and parts made from a breakthrough material called ceramic matrix composites (CMCs). CMCs are both heat resistant and weigh much less than metal. Image credit: GE Reports/Adam Senatori

But GE is not finished. The company is now developing the world’s largest engine, the GE9X for Boeing’s new 777X plane. It will include fourth generation fan blades, CMCs and 3D printed components. The engine was designed to use 10 percent less fuel than the world’s most powerful engine, the GE-115B. (GE Aviation’s Rick Kennedy in the video above has the details.) For the first time in civilian aviation, GE is testing blades made from CMCs that could be used inside the GE9X. In the future, these blades, which GE unveiled at the Paris Air Show, could be also used to retrofit existing engines like the GEnx. CMCs are one third the weight of metal but withstand higher temperatures. This combination leads to lighter and more efficient jet engines. Image credit: GE Reports/Adam Senatori

GE started testing fourth-generation carbon fiber composite blades for the GE9X. The blades are thinner, wider and longer than ever before. (The video below has more on the testing process.) GE is also testing the GE9X engine’s new core in Massa, Italy.