GE Aviation to Industrialize Ceramic Matrix Composites
Ian Wright posted on March 07, 2017 | 1873 views
Blades coated with CMCs on a GE low-pressure turbine (LPT). Image courtesy of GE Aviation.)
Blades coated with CMCs on a GE low-pressure turbine (LPT). Image courtesy of GE Aviation.)
Composite materials are all the rage these days.

There are composite 3D printers, composite inspection training courses—even the automotive industry is getting in on the action. The reasons are obvious: composite materials can be stronger, lighter or less expensive than traditional materials.

Of particular interest to the aerospace industry—one of the largest consumers of composite materials—are ceramic matrix composites (CMCs). These consist of ceramic fibers embedded in a ceramic matrix and are designed to be more resistant to cracking caused by mechanical stress compared to traditional ceramics, like aluminum nitride.

According to GE Aviation, the amount of CMC raw material used by the company will be approximately 20 times greater this year than it was in 2007. That’s why GE Aviation is focusing on industrializing CMC production, and it’s doing so here in the US.

By 2020, the company expects to have more than 750 US employees dedicated to CMC manufacturing. In the last ten years, GE Aviation has spent more than USD $1.5 billion bringing its CMC technology to market.

In addition to the GE Global Research Center in Niskayuna, NY, this investment includes four production facilities:

  • A CMC laboratory at its headquarters in Evendale, Ohio to develop CMC production designs
  • A low-rate production facility in Newark, Del. for CMC raw material and components
  • A full-rate production facility in Asheville, N.C. to mass-produce CMCs, including the static turbine shrouds flying in CFM LEAP engines

Now, GE Aviation is constructing the last significant piece of its CMCs industrialization puzzle: a full-rate production raw material facility in Huntsville, Ala. Once operational, the Huntsville facility is expected to produce up to 20 metric tons (20,000kg) of CMC material a year. For reference, one CFM LEAP engine uses approximately 1kg of CMC material.

The company is reportedly investing more than $200 million to construct two factories on 100 acres in Huntsville.

One plant will mass produce silicon carbide (SiC) ceramic fiber, the first high volume production operation in the United States. Supported by $21.9 million in funding from the U.S. Air Force Research Lab Title III Office, the plant is intended to dramatically increase US capability to produce SiC ceramic fiber, which is capable of withstanding temperatures of 2400°F.

CMCs are being used to improve fuel efficiency in GE’s adaptive cycle engines. (Image courtesy of GE Aviation.)
CMCs are being used to improve fuel efficiency in GE’s adaptive cycle engines. (Image courtesy of GE Aviation.)
The adjacent GE factory on the same campus will use the SiC ceramic fiber to make unidirectional CMC prepreg necessary to fabricate the CMC components.

“We continue to make great progress,” said Huntsville site leader Jon Lyford.

“The engineering and construction teams are on track to start placing process equipment by October. The CMC prepreg facility commissioning will be complete in the summer of 2018. The CMC fiber facility commissioning remains targeted for the spring of 2019.”

The only other large-scale SiC ceramic fiber factory is operated by NGS Advanced Fibers Co. in Toyama, Japan. Formed in 2012, NGS is a joint company of Nippon Carbon, GE and Safran of France. The US SiC fiber plant will license fiber-producing technology from NGS.

For more information, visit the GE Aviation website.

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