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NextGen Jet Engine Fan Blades Use Carbon Super Material

September 2, 2014 - In the late 19th Century, Thomas Edison baked cotton threads and shredded bamboo to create some of the earliest commercial pure carbon fiber for use as the first glowing filaments in light bulbs. Industrial engineers are no longer baking bamboo, but carbon fiber is still a subject of fascination as a super material. 

GE is utilizing a next-generation carbon fiber composite for the fan blades that will debut in the GE9X engine, which will drive Boeing’s upcoming 777X passenger aircraft. The composite material is letting engineers build the GE9X with thinner and fewer blades, which will contribute to 5 percent less fuel being burned compared with all other similar engines when the 9X is ready in 2020. 


Testing an earlier generation of composite fan blades with large ice balls.

“The GE9X team is combining the lessons learned from those fielded blades with the next generation of material and aero technologies to push the envelope and maintain our competitive edge,” says Tod Davis, the GE9X composite fan blade design leader.

“The carbon fiber composite material has also advanced during the past 10 years,” says Davis.  “The advancements allow us to design a thinner blade, which is just as strong as our current composite fan blades. Fewer, thinner blades will enhance the airflow and make for a lighter, more efficient fan that will help with the GE9X engine’s overall performance and fuel burn.”

Davis says carbon fiber composites have always needed to be thicker than metal, though they were also lighter and more durable. The fourth generation of composite material has a stiffer fiber, which means the blades can be crafted at thicknesses much closer to metal versions. The blades’ leading edges, formerly made of titanium, will now be made of a new steel alloy to enhance the component’s strength.



Davis and a team of engineers followed a process that Edison would recognize in whittling down the candidates for the new carbon fiber.  “We thoroughly tested the material at various levels from coupon testing of static, fatigue, and fracture toughness properties to component testing of fatigue and ultimate strength capability,” he says.  These test results have allowed them to select the best material for the GE9X engine. he says.

More than 700 GE9X engines have been ordered so far because of the fuel savings inherent in the composite fan blades and other advanced materials, like the tough ceramic matrix composite material that will withstand extreme temperatures in the engine’s combustor and turbine. The weight savings from all of these advances mean the GE9X fan will be lighter than its predecessor, the GE90, while also being the largest fan produced by the company. The composite fan case at the front of the engine will measure 133 inches in diameter, about the length of a compact car.

Airlines including Emirates, Etihad Airways, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, and Qatar Airways have placed orders for the 777X with GE9X powerplants, which will deliver more than 100,000 pounds of thrust.  Engineers are continuing to refine the machine’s design to optimize its aerodynamics before the design is frozen in late 2015. Flight testing is expected to begin in 2017.

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