Investment flows into development of electric propulsion for future commercial aircraft
Pictured is a GE silicon carbide (SiC) wafer. Delivering higher power density in smaller-sized applications, SiC technology will be a key enabler for developing an inverter that meets the size, power, efficiency and altitude requirements specified by NASA
Thu 26 Sept 2019 – Aircraft engine manufacturer GE is to partner with NASA’s Advanced Air Vehicles Program to develop a central component for the electric propulsion of a commercial aircraft. The project team is aiming to develop a next-generation inverter that meets the size, power, efficiency and altitude requirements specified by NASA for flight operations. This provides power to drive the electric motor and the challenge is to come up with an inverter that is small enough and delivers the required power to support electric flight. GE believes its silicon-carbide technology can provide the significant increase in power density that is required. NASA says it has been researching electric aircraft architectures for nearly two decades and has developed experimental aircraft that have demonstrated electrical propulsion concepts to significantly reduce fuel consumption and emissions. In related news, Boeing and Safran have announced a joint investment in Electric Power Systems, which is developing aviation-grade energy storage systems.
Explaining the GE/NASA programme, Konrad Weeber, Chief Engineer of Electric Power at GE Research said: “We’re essentially packing 1 MW of power into the size of a compact suitcase that will convert enough electric power to enable hybrid-electric propulsion architectures for commercial airplanes. We have successfully built and demonstrated inverters at ground level that meet the power, size and efficiency requirements of electric flight. The next step is to build and demonstrate one that is altitude ready.”
Another challenge, noted Weeber, is to develop insulation systems that perform reliably at high altitudes given the high voltages required to manage the electric power. Fortunately, he said, the team will be able to tap decades of IP and knowledge developing insulation materials for power system applications in the energy, industrial and transportation sectors to overcome this technical barrier.
Added Amy Jankovsky, Hybrid Gas-Electric Propulsion subproject manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center: “With recent advances in materials and power electronics, we are beginning to overcome the challenges faced in developing energy-reducing electrification concepts, and this inverter work is a critical step in NASA’s Electrified Aircraft Propulsion effort. Our partnership with GE is key to advancing flight-weight and flight-ready components in the megawatt class.”
Funding of the $12 million programme will be a 50/50 cost share between GE and NASA.
Boeing HorizonX Ventures and Safran Corporate Ventures say their joint investment in Electric Power Systems (EPS) will help the Utah-based aerospace company develop a highly automated industrial base capable of producing aviation-grade energy storage systems “at an unprecedented scale”. It will also support the advancement of technologies to further reduce the costs of battery systems for electric airplanes.
“We will collaborate with EPS to offer our customers electric or hybrid-electric propulsion systems with a level of performance that sets us apart from competition,” said Alain Sauret, Safran Electrical & Power President. “This technology cooperation is emblematic of Safran’s strategy in greener propulsion solutions.”
EPS supports electric and hybrid-electric airplanes such as the NASA X-57, Bye eFlyer and Bell Nexus. The company’s CEO, Nathan Millecam, commented: “Electrification of flight has the potential to fundamentally change how goods, services and humans connect. We are thrilled to work with visionary companies such as Boeing and Safran to further develop and field advanced energy solutions that can meet real world mission demands.”
In April, Collins Aerospace Systems announced a $50 million investment in The Grid, an advanced electric power systems lab that will design and test systems like high-power generators for the next generation of more electric aircraft. Among the first platforms to be supported will be the recently unveiled United Technologies hybrid-electric Project 804 flight demonstrator. Its goal is to re-engine and fly a regional turboprop aircraft powered by a 2 megawatt-class hybrid-electric propulsion system.
“Collins is the innovation leader in electric systems, and The Grid positions us to remain the world leader in the electrification of aircraft for decades to come,” said Collins Aerospace CEO Kelly Ortberg. “In the not-too-distant future, hybrid-electric and fully electric aircraft will revolutionise air travel as we know it – opening up new markets like urban air mobility, while re-invigorating others like regional service to underutilised airports. They will help support a greener planet by reducing carbon emissions and will help our airline customers by reducing operating costs and fuel consumption.”
Speaking at the ICAO 40th Assembly in Montreal, Michael Gill, Executive Director of the cross-industry Air Transport Action Group said: “Aviation has always been an industry exploring the cutting edge of technology and a number of new developments give us guidance on the shape of air transport operations in the future. Electric propulsion and even hydrogen are starting to become more robust technology options, although a great deal of research remains to be done in both areas. Electric may be a possibility for short-haul aircraft operations in the 2035-2040 timeframe.”