The oil embargo of 1973 was a miserable period when American towns banned Christmas lights to save electricity, billboards urged citizens to “turn off the damn lights” and filling stations dispensed gasoline by appointment only. The crisis got everyone thinking seriously about innovation and energy efficiency. One result: the massive and efficient jet engines that power the world’s longest commercial flights today.
Starting on Feb. 1, Emirates launched the world’s longest passenger flight between Dubai and Panama City. A westbound Boeing 777-200LR powered by a pair of GE90 engines covers the 8,950 miles that separates them on a single tank of gas in 17 hours and 35 minutes. But that record may soon topple. In January, Qatar Airways announced plans to launch a 9,034-mile flight lasting 18 hours and 30 minutes between Doha and Auckland in New Zealand. That route would use an Airbus A350 plane, which has GE composite components in its wings. Finally, United launched the longest flight originating at a U.S. airport between San Francisco and Singapore in June. It’s the world’s longest scheduled route flown by a GEnx-powered Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. The eastbound leg lasts 15h 30min and the westbound trip back clocks in at 16h 20min.
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These new efficiency benchmarks have their origin in the oil shock. NASA, in particular, began a quest to develop an energy-efficient engine for commercial aircraft known as the E3 (E-cubed) program. GE joined early on and developed a new generation of high-bypass turbofan engines starting with the GE90. It has since added the GEnx for the Dreamliner and 747-8, and the GE9X, which is currently in development.
To reduce weight, GE equipped the engines with light, carbon-fiber composite fan blades. To this day no other engine maker has engines with composite fan blades in service today. (The design for the GE90 was so fetching that one blade is now on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.). “This was a huge, expensive and risky project,” says Shridhar Nath, who leads the composites lab at GE Global Research. “We planned to replace titanium with what is essentially plastic. We were starting from scratch and we did not know how carbon fiber blades would respond to rain, hail, snow and sand, and the large forces inside the engine.”
But it paid off. “The engines essentially opened the globe up to incredibly efficient, twin-powered, wide-body planes,” says David Joyce, president and CEO of GE Aviation.
The latest engine in the GE family, the GE9X, will power Boeing’s next-generation 777X long-haul jets. Lightweight carbon composites allowed engineers to design an 11-foot fan that can suck a maelstrom of 8,000 pounds of air per second inside the engine. The air will flow into the combustor, where it meets parts made from ceramic matrix composites (CMCs), another breakthrough material developed by GE scientists.
Carbon fiber composites work with cold air at the front of the engine. But CMCs, which were originally developed for massive gas turbines for power plants, operate in the engine’s hot section, at temperatures where even metals grow soft. The extra heat gained by the ceramics gives the engine more energy to work with and makes it more efficient.
CMCs also have twice the strength and just a third of the weight of their metal counterparts. This allows designers to make parts from them thinner and much lighter, further reducing the weight of the engine. Says GE researcher Krishnan Luthra, who spent two decades developing the material: “I thought it would be the Holy Grail if we could make it work.”