In an attempt to reduce maintenance and fuel costs, General Electric (NYSE:GE) is investing in the production of ceramic-based parts for its jet engine business. Small-scale production of one part will begin as early as next year in GE Aviation’s planned Asheville, North Carolina factory.
The materials, called ceramic matrix composites, or CMCs, are typically more durable than the nickel alloy parts currently being used, which will cut down maintenance costs for airline companies. They are also more fuel efficient and cut down on emissions—both huge benefits for airline companies like Delta (NYSE:DAL), United Continental (NYSE:UAL), and Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV).
GE’s chief competitor in the jet engine business is United Technologies Corp’s (NYSE:UTX) Pratt & Whitney, which has not invested in ceramic matrix composites and instead focused on a new engine design. The “Geared Turbofan Engine” allows for a bigger front fan that could cut fuel use by 15 percent, according to Business Insider.
Currently 10 percent of parts used in GE engines are of a composite material. However, most of these composite parts are made of carbon fiber, not CMC’s, and thus can only be used in the “cold” part of the engine— away from where the fuel is burned. The ceramic matrix composites can be used in the “hot” section, where fuel is burned, and are expected to increase the number of composite parts used to 50 percent.
The change to composite parts could allow engines to run at higher temperatures, allowing more thrust from a given amount of fuel, according to MIT’s Technology Review. These parts also weigh about one-third of their nickel alloy counterparts—making jet engines far lighter.
The Asheville factory will begin work on one stationary ceramic part early next year, according to The Wall Street Journal. The part will play an integral role in “The Leap” engine by GE, which will come into service in 2016 and is expected to ship 1,200 units in 2017. From there, GE hopes to get up to nine stationary ceramic parts in the “hot” section of the engine.
The potential efficiency of the new CMC’s is endless, as are the benefits GE can reap from them. They are more green, will save money on fuel, and can potentially cut travel time thanks to the higher thrust capability. While there is still a ways to go before being put into commercial use, the outlook for CMC usage is bright.