GE Aviation partners with military to develop 'transformer' engine

In addition to its growing base of commercial jet engines, GE Aviation is developing a new engine for military fighter aircraft and recently achieved a milestone in its development.

The Evendale-based jet engine manufacturer, in partnership with the Dayton-area U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, has came up with a “transformer” engine that can switch modes — from supersonic to cruising speeds — midair.

Current military planes are powered by fixed-cycle engines. But GE and the federal defense department have made an adaptive engine that can switch modes in flight between high fuel efficiency performance to maximum power. The engine program extends aircraft operating range by 30 percent, improves fuel consumption by 25 percent and increases thrust by more than 10 percent compared to the latest engine made for the joint strike fighter, according to GE.

The advances mean the military can save money and fuel, and reach further distances on the same tank of gas, said GE spokesman Matt Benvie.

GE Aviation completed in June a design review for the Adaptive Engine Technology Development with leaders from the U.S. Air Force, Navy, NASA and Lockheed Martin. The U.S. Department of Defense and the company have jointly invested about $1 billion in the engine’s development, and now that the design review has been completed, it means they can move on to the next phase of the engine’s development.

The public-private partnership has proven the research and the engine works, and designed an engine to fit into a next generation aircraft. Now GE is building and testing pieces of engines; for example, the fan, compressor, turbine and combustor can be tested separately, Benvie said. Eventually, the military engine could be ready to power the U.S. military’s combat jets by the mid-2020s.

“Since 2007, GE Aviation has successfully partnered with the Department of Defense to cost effectively design, manufacture and test this revolutionary combination of architectural, compression technology, cooling technology, and material technology advancements,” said Dan McCormick, general manager of GE Aviation’s Advanced Combat Engine program, in a written statement.

In addition to the adaptive technology, the military engine also makes use of the same advanced material technologies that GE Aviation is incorporating into its commercial engines, such as the LEAP, which makes its debut to the first airline customer next year.

LEAP, a product of GE joint venture CFM International, will be the first commercial jet engine to contain an additively manufactured part in a critical area as well as materials made from ceramic matrix composites, according to the company. High pressure turbine shrouds in the hot section of the engine will be made from ceramic matrix composites.

Then GE will spread 3-D or additive manufactured parts and ceramic composites to more parts of the engine after that for the GE9X, which will debut by 2020.

The Adaptive Engine will take advanced materials further and contain the industry’s first rotating parts made from ceramic matrix composites, according to GE.

The new technologies mean the engines will be lighter than traditional materials and able to withstand hotter temperatures, which will improve fuel efficiency.

GE Aviation is headquartered in Evendale in suburban Cincinnati. It and the joint venture with the engine maker CFM International, based in West Chester Twp., employ more than 9,000 people in Southwest Ohio.

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which is Ohio’s largest single site employer.