In the 1960s, GE set out to create Hardiman, a mechanical exoskeleton that could give its user the ability to lift up to 1,500 pounds. Unfortunately, the suit’s size, weight, stability and power-supply issues prevented it from ever leaving the laboratory. Kevin Weir at flux machine recently re- animated the wearable technology to help us imagine what Hardiman might have been.
The Peebles Test Operation is where GE subjects its engines to groaning trials that involve hail and ice blasts, hurricane-force winds, bird strikes and other extreme hardships that exceed anything they are likely to encounter in service.
The tests reflect the tough requirements the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other regulatory agencies impose on jet engines before they are certified for commercial service.
One of the strangest structures at the 7,000-acre facility is a grey, honeycombed orb spanning 32 feet in diameter. Up close, the mysterious sphere appears like a translucent alien beehive attached to the front of a jet engine. The sphere is made from an array of 300 flat aluminum honeycombs and perforated stainless steel plate panels of varying sizes, and weighs 30,000 pounds.
Meet the “turbulence control structure.” GE owns three of them. The orb is really a high-tech wind shelter. It helps crews smooth out the flow of air into a jet engine during simulations of engine distress, including changes in fuel flow and “deterioration” of the engine compressor and turbine.
Aerospace engineer Jose Gonsalez, who came to GE from NASA, has been testing jet engines at Peebles for seven years.
The dome is made from an array of 300 flat aluminum honeycombs and perforated stainless steel plate panels of varying sizes.
He says that the dome makes the test site more efficient. It allows him to manage changes in airflow cause by the weather. “You don’t want that as a variable when you collect performance data across many days and under different conditions,” Gonsalez says.
GE first introduced the sphere in the 1990s, when it started testing the world’s most powerful engine, the GE90.
“Before the turbulence control structure, you would have to wait for calm conditions to be within your wind envelope, typically from dusk through early morning,” Gonsalez says. “Now when there is a lot of sunshine and convective heating from the sun, you can better deal with the variable wind conditions. We can run more tests more often.”
The grey honeycombed orb spans 32 feet in diameter and weighs 30,000 pounds.
GE is on track to finish one of the largest and most logistically complex environmental cleanups in U.S. history on a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson River.
The company has removed nearly 2 million cubic yards of sediment containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the New York State waterway since 2009.The project is due to conclude in 2016.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the project, has stated that the dredging is meeting its cleanup goals and protects human health and the environment.
In 2002, the EPA issued a decision that called for the removal of an estimated 2.65 million cubic yards of PCBs from 493 acres of the river.
GE used PCBs at its Hudson Falls and Fort Edward plants. The company held valid permits at all times necessary for discharging them to the river.
In 2005, GE assembled a technical team to address the challenges. They included taking over 60,000 samples from the riverbed to map the areas to dredge, customizing the dredging and sediment processing equipment, and building a 110-acre facility to process the sediments and load them for transport via rail to government approved landfills.
Dredging began in 2009. The engineers used 3-D virtual reality software dubbed “Nintendo,” a custom-built digital positioning system and other instruments to map the irregular bottom of the river and guide dredges to the precise locations of PCBs in sediment. The “Nintendo” allowed the equipment operators to virtually “see” the riverbed in real time and excavate the right sediment. A wireless data transmission system also simultaneously sent the data to engineers monitoring the progress of dredging.
The team integrated the software with the excavator’s hydraulic system. The resulting data allows workers to customize the details of the dredge plan based on actual performance and minimize the amount of “under- or over-dig.”
The operation generates nearly a terabyte of data every day. The team stores it in the cloud and makes it immediately accessible to crews managing the on-water efforts, at the office, and also at home. A core team of GE and EPA managers use it to determine the direction of the project for the next 24 hours.
GE has invested $1 billion in the cleanup project so far. Today the project involves more than 350 full-time employees, contractors and consultants. As many as 70 vessels are at work in the river during dredging operations. Thus far, those vessels have traveled more than 17,000 miles up and down the river.
As of December, GE had removed almost 2 million cubic yards of sediment, which is more than 70 of the total sediment targeted by the EPA. Workers also planted more than 600,000 native plants to restore aquatic river-bottom vegetation in areas that have been dredged.
GE is preparing to begin the fifth season of environmental dredging in the Upper Hudson River in May, and run it through October. It will include work on a two-mile section of the river inaccessible by boat. The team will use a crane to place smaller dredges and hopper barges into the water to remove 160,000 cubic yards of sediment.
On an eerily balmy first day of winter last December, when the temperature hit record 71 degrees Fahrenheit in New York City, Tim Grob steered his black electric Tesla S sedan into the parking lot of Brooklyn’s new Whole Foods supermarket. He parked next to a towering green Sanya Skypump and plugged in.
The “skypump” combines a vertical wind turbine developed by Urban Green Energy (UGE) with GE’s powerful WattStation EV charger. The 4-kilowatt wind turbine supplies the charging station with electricity anyplace the wind blows. “They should be everywhere,” Grob says. “It just makes sense. Eventually they will be.”
GE’s WattStation is using electricity generated by UGE’s 4-kilowatt vertical wind turbine.
Climate change has been on the minds of many local shoppers. Just a year ago, parts of New York City, including the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.
There are two Skypumps at the Brooklyn Whole Foods Market store. UGE has also installed 19 streetlights using solar and wind power in the parking lot, and several carports covered with solar panels. Ryan Gilchrist, assistant vice president of business development at UGE, said that his company was “seeing an increasing number of customers come to us looking for energy reliability solutions.”
Whole Foods said in a statement that the Brooklyn store was “about 60 percent more energy efficient than any other grocery store in the United States. We’re going to be saving about 2.5 million kilowatt-hours a year, which is equivalent to taking about 360 cars off the road annually,” the company said.
“We’ve received extremely positive feedback from Whole Foods about the units,” says UGE’s senior engineer Jan Gromadzki. “We are looking forward to many more successful installations with them.”
Shoppers arrived in T-shirts on an unseasonably balmy first winter day to Brooklyn’s new Whole Foods store.
The WattStation’s sleek features come from industrial designer Yves Behar.
The first Industrial Revolution was about machines, the second about technology, and the third will take place inside the “Brilliant Factory,” says Christine Furstoss, global technology director at GE Global Research.
Based in part in the cloud, the Brilliant Factory will be a place where designers, suppliers and production engineers will collaborate over crowdsourcing platforms, design goods and virtually test production without touching materials or machines. “They will download the process to intelligent machines on the factory floor when they are ready,” Furstoss says. “When production starts, they will be able to make real-time adjustments based on what’s happening to optimize efficiency.”
A key element of that crowdsourcing collaboration will be the customer. “Service, the function that’s usually closest to the customer, feeds engineering with reality-based measures of product performance,” says Ian Boulton, senior director for solution strategy at the Big Data firm PTC. “Engineering, in turn, designs products with service optimization in mind.”
Software and hardware technology called PowerUp allows wind farm operators like EDP Renewables to monitor performance in real time and boost power output by as much as 5 percent per turbine. This could translate to a 20 percent increase in profit.
Boulton believes that the advent of the Industrial Internet (or Internet of Things), a network that connects machines with software, sensors and data, is “transforming product development processes and accelerating design innovation.” He calls this trend “servitization.”
He says that “only a decade ago, the data storage and analytics tools needed to deliver on the ‘design for service’ dream weren’t quite there. They are today.”
The Trip Optimizer system connects locomotives to the Industrial Internet. It works like an intelligent cruise control, crunching a complex diet of data ranging from train characteristics like length, weight and the number of locomotives, to track profile information like grades and speed restrictions.
A recent story in Barron’s story pointed out that GE was transforming itself from a seller of just equipment into a seller of services. “Airlines can use data from hundreds of GE sensors to reduce fuel costs and plan maintenance,” Barron’s wrote. “Railroads can do the same to optimize trips. Software now contributes $4 billion a year to GE’s revenue. And service contracts create a stream of high-margin income that can last for the life of the equipment the company sells—in some cases, three or four decades.”
Bob Judge, director of product management at GE Oil & Gas, says that GE needs to “move from the ‘break-fix’ model to a maintenance model where we can advise customers to service a component based on measurements of its performance.”
As service starts informing design, the idea is that there will be a lot less fixing and a lot more performance.
Jet engines come in all shapes and sizes. Fighter jets use sleek and narrow supersonic engines called low-bypass turbofans to generate enormous thrust. But they also guzzle plenty of gas. Passenger planes use their bigger and more efficient cousins, called high-bypass turbofans. But they are not nearly as fast.
Now engineers at GE Aviation and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory are working on the world’s first engine that combines the best features of both designs. “We are making a generational leap with this technology,” says Dan McCormick, manager for adaptive cycle engine programs at GE Aviation. “We are looking at speed and performance, but also fuel savings of 25 percent. That extra fuel could increase how far a military jet flies by up to 35 percent. That’s huge.”
The new design is called “adaptive cycle” engine. It can switch between high power and high efficiency modes. “It’s all about getting as much work as we can out of every drop of jet fuel we burn,” McCormick says.
The adaptive cycle engine is building on decades of military and civilian jet engine research. Innovative architecture shifts air flow between the core, the main bypass, and a third stream to achieve thrust, optimal performance, and fuel efficiency.
The idea dates back to the 1960s, when jet engine pioneer Gerhard Neumann realized that he could manage jet engine performance by controlling the amount of air that flows through the engine core. More flow yields more thrust and speed (that’s good for fighter jets); less flow saves fuel.
GE’s adaptive cycle engine automatically flips between the two modes and gives fighter pilots the speed they need during dogfights, and the fuel savings when they are flying patrols. “We want the engine to take care of itself and let the pilot focus on the mission,” McCormick says. “When the pilot says ‘I’m out of danger, I want to cruise home,’ the engine reconfigures itself.”
The new adaptive cycle engine is building on the YF120, GE’s first variable cycle engine prototype (above on a test stand at Edwards Air Force Base).
In the 1990s, GE engineers built and flight-tested an early prototype of a variable engine, called YF120.
The team is now testing GE’s latest adaptive cycle engine design called ADVENT (ADaptive Versatile ENgine Technology), at the company’s aviation plant in Cincinnati, OH. It includes new heat resistant materials called ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) and 3D printed parts.
A bladed disk, or blisk, from the YF120 engine.
The team recently achieved the highest temperature ever recorded inside a jet engine core, surpassing engine target temperatures by more than 130 degrees Fahrenheit. This achievement (validated by the Air Force) is a game-changer because more heat equals more power, resulting in greater fuel efficiency.
Adaptive-cycle technology has applications that reach beyond the military. “The latest GE jet engines like the GE9X will use CMCs and 3D printed parts,” says Dave Jeffcoat, ADVENT project manager at GE Aviation. “The tests show that we’ve picked the right technology. We are building on a solid foundation.”
RainDance Technologies is developing new “liquid biopsy” systems using tiny droplets separated by oil to analyze DNA. Researchers using the technology are evaluating its ability to identify whether the samples may contain cancer, viruses, pathogens and markers released by the immune system.
The new tools could allow doctors to test tumors and cancer cells with a simple needle prick. RainDance, which is based in Billerica, Mass, just received a new $16.5 million round of financing from a group of investors including GE’s venture capital arm, GE Ventures.
Alex de Winter, who invests in clinical diagnostics startups at GE Ventures, says that each droplet becomes a miniature bioreactor that can amplify target DNA inside a RainDance analyzer.
De Winter says that instead of sequencing the whole genome, the droplets allow researchers to focus only on the relevant pre-identified genes, or as little as 1 percent of the sample. “You don’t waste time and you don’t waste sequencing power,” de Winter says.
The technology is now being used only by researchers but the new investment will allow RainDance to expand research and speed up possible commercial applications. The company, which was launched in 2004, has raised more than $100 million in financing, including the new round.
Sue Siegel, CEO of GE Ventures and healthymagination, said that GE has followed RainDance “for many years” and was “impressed with how the company’s cutting edge technologies are advancing the market and helping to bring in a new era of more accurate, non-invasive and cost-efficient testing for complex genetic disease research.”
GE’s healthymagination challenge, for example, launched an open innovation quest looking for the best new ideas in breast cancer detection and treatment.
Last year GE Ventures also invested in HeadSense, an Israeli company that is developing disposable ear buds to monitor intracranial pressure in the brain. Doctors normally drill a hole in the skull to do the job and the new system could help them get around the invasive procedure.
Says Siegel: “We believe technology will play a major role in transforming patient care and by partnering with leading innovators we can help scale the best new ideas in major industries like healthcare.”
Photo illustration: Ovarian cancer cell culture imaged by GE’s IN Cell Analyzer.
Thomas Edison received 1,093 patents during his lifetime for inventions that include the light bulb, the power plant, the modern cement kiln and the first movie camera. He even came up with the tattoo machine.
In 1876, Thomas Edison patented an electric pen designed to relieve clerks of the drudgery of duplicating documents. It had a sharp vibrating needle that users dragged along lines of text written on a sheet of paper.
The needle punctured the sheet 50 times per second and turned it into a stencil. Ink would seep through the tiny holes and replicate the writing on papers placed underneath. The invention didn’t exactly catch on, but it presaged the copy machine and, in the hands of artists, revolutionized tattooing.
To celebrate Edison’s birthday last month, the design company Tattlymade temporary tattoos of Thomas Edison’s lightbulb patent.
Anticipating Sandra Bullock’s problems in Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning feature gravity, a team of GE engineers proposed in the 1960s a design for a single-person space escape pod called Man Out of Space Easiest (later changed to Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment), or MOOSE.
The engineers designed MOOSE to weigh just 200 pounds and fit inside a suitcase-sized container. It used a small rocket motor for power and contained a PET film (the flexible silver-colored plastic material used by marathon runners and emergency crews) as a heat shield, two pressurized canisters filled with polyurethane foam, a parachute, radio equipment and a survival kit.
Astronauts in an emergency leave the craft wearing a space suit, climb inside the PET bag and fill it with the insulating foam. The motor, as shown in the diagram, sticks out of the bag and eases the astronaut into the atmosphere. Once the astronaut falls to about 30,000 feet above Earth’s surface, a parachute deploys and slows descent to 17 mph. This is when the foam comes into play, serving as a cushion for when the astronaut touches down (it could also be used as a flotation device should the person land in water). The astronauts would then use radio to signal rescuers.
MOOSE was intended only for extreme situations and the effort to realize the design was later abandoned. Many advances in materials and technology have occurred since then. Some of them were on display during daredevil Felix Baumgartner’s free-fall from the stratosphere last year.
In the 1960s, a team of GE engineers proposed a design for a single-person space escape pod called Man Out of Space Easiest (later changed to Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment), or MOOSE.A detailed image of the escape pod.A concept drawing of escape capsule.
The pair worked with Thomas Edison to develop and test the Kinetoscope, an early motion picture viewing device considered to be the precursor to movie projectors. The film, all 56 seconds of it, shows a lab worker “horsing around" in front of the camera.
Fortune magazine published this week “the definitive report card on corporate reputations” a.k.a. its World’s Most Admired Companies list. GE jumped to No. 10, up one spot from last year and five places higher compared to 2012.
“As the world’s largest producer of commercial jet engines as well as the creator of the garbage disposal, GE’s expertise in manufacturing is sky high ̶ and growing,” the magazine said.
Scientists at GE Global Research are working with magnetically charged liquids called ferrofluids. They could have applications in medicine, power generation and elsewhere. GE is investing heavily in organic growth. A decade ago, it used to spend 2 percent of revenues on R&D. It now spends 5 to 6 percent.
Barron’s observed in 2013 that GE was “transforming itself into a seller of services” rather than just equipment. “Airlines can use data from hundreds of GE sensors to reduce fuel costs and plan maintenance,” the newspaper wrote. “Railroads can do the same to optimize trips. Software now contributes $4 billion a year to GE’s revenue. And service contracts create a stream of high-margin income that can last for the life of the equipment the company sells—in some cases, three or four decades.”
Says Jeff Immelt, GE Chairman and CEO: “Industrial data is not only big, it’s the most critical and complex type of big data. Our greatest challenge and opportunity is to manage and analyze this data in a highly secure way to deliver better outcomes for customers and society.”
Like the faint rumble of a distant battle, the symbol AC/DC lives quietly on millions of power adapters and, more noisily, in the name of an Aussie hard rock band. A century ago, however, it symbolized a titanic clash that pitched Thomas Edison against George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla in the War of Currents. It was the one big fight that Edison lost.
Edison was a believer in DC, or direct current. DC flows in one direction from the plus pole to the minus pole. We often get it from batteries and use it to power virtually all computers, cell phones, microchips and other electronic devices. Westinghouse and Tesla backed the big winner, AC, or alternating current. It comes out of power plants and its direction reverses, or alternates, 60 times per second in the U.S. (50 times in Europe). AC is the current in the wall socket and utilities favor it because it can be easily transformed and moved over long distances more efficiently than DC.
But DC has been recently opening a new offensive in large industrial applications. Ship builders, for example, have started exploring DC for marine propulsion. Engineers are looking at using DC current to build better and more efficient “green” ships.
Next-generation ships like the Royal Navy’s HMS Dragon could be soon using a DC propulsion system. Cargo ship and cruise ships could be next. Top image HMS Defender. Credit: Royal Navy
The technology allows them to shrink the overall size of the propulsion machinery, equipment and cables that power the propellers. Besides boosting efficiency, it also leaves more space for cargo.
Oliver Simmonds, lead naval engineer at GE Power Conversion, says that “DC architecture offers greater flexibility and allows designers to maximize the potential for using efficient drives that can run at variable speed. “Imagine a garden hose,” he says. “I can run the pump at full speed and then throttle the hose to reduce the flow, but that wastes energy. But what if I could reduce flow by slowing down the pump? I can do that now with power electronics, save fuel and get the same effect.”
That’s where direct current comes in. DC power electronics and architecture allow engineers to transmit as much as 23 percent more power than an equivalent AC system.
The system is still using AC generators to produce power (they are less complex than their DC cousins). But it converts AC to DC for efficient transmission around the ship. This design leads to another benefit: it allows engineers to store DC power in batteries and use it as a back-up in emergency. “Harbor safety regulations often require ships to run more than one power generator at a low load, which is inefficient, even though they use just a fraction of the electricity they generate,” Simmonds says. “That’s just like the throttle and the water pump, a lot of waste. But with a DC system, you could use just one generator and use an integrated battery system if something goes wrong. This represents potentially large fuel savings.”
Simmonds’ team is now working with the Royal Navy in the U.K. to develop the technology for next-next generation ships. But the system could find applications on cargo vessels as well as cruise ships.
Edison may have lost the war, but a century later he’s winning a battle.
California is bracing for what could be a nasty wildfire season fueled by a record drought. One of the high-tech weapons in the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s arsenal is the Firehawk, a modified Black Hawk UH-60 helicopter that can carry 1,000 gallons of water and fly near intense fires causing huge temperature swings.
“These machines are experiencing some of the most extreme conditions you can image on a helicopter,” says Bill Neth, customer programs manager at GE Aviation. “Every time the aircraft is fighting fire, it goes to maximum power six to eight times per hour. It must deal with the heat but also the heavy lifting when the tank if full of water. There is no margin for error.”
Sikorsky originally developed the chopper for the U.S. Army. But the Firehawk, which is powered by a pair of souped-up T700 GE helicopter engines, has been modified for firefighting, rescue, external lift and medical evacuation.
A powerful pump can fill up the 1,000-gallon water tank in just one minute through a retractable snorkel hose while hovering over a water source. The helicopter can also land and ingest water through a connector on the side of the tank.
Neth says that GE aviation engineers studied Black Hawks that returned from Iraq and Afghanistan to improve the hot section of the engine. They put in parts from advanced nickel alloys and made the engines more resistant to wild temperature swings, airborne debris and degradation from thermal distress. The engine can now withstand extreme conditions as still deliver the necessary power.
GE recently sent a film crew to check in with the L.A. Country Fire Department and observe their preparations for the new fire season. Take a look at our video above.
Henry Ford was fond of saying that “nothing was particularly hard if you divided it into small jobs.” He followed his own advice, built world’s first assembly lines that cranked out 15 million Model Ts, and left his competitors in the dust. Engineers are now taking Ford’s advice to the extreme and breaking down the factory to bits and bytes.
“Software, data and analytics are changing what we can make in ways I couldn’t imagine when I left school,” says Christine Furstoss, global technology director at GE Global Research. “It’s more than 3-D printing jet engine parts from a digital file, which we already do. We can build a factory that can make itself better. We call it the Brilliant Factory.”
Furstoss spent Tuesday afternoon at the White House, where President Obama announced that he would open two new innovation institutes to boost advanced manufacturing in the U.S. The first one, in Chicago, will focus on digital manufacturing and design innovation. The other, in Detroit, will experiment with light-weight materials. “It’s all about growing a new generation of workforce,” Furstoss says. “The next manufacturing revolution can be an American revolution.”
This “bone chip” lattice cube was made from titanium on an electron beam melting machine (EBM). The organic design makes it two thirds lighter than a solid cube, while maintaining the solid’s compression strength. This design could deliver huge material savings and weight reduction.
The White House had previously opened two innovation institutes, in Raleigh, NC, and Youngstown, OH. It will launch four more this year, beyond the two just announced.
As an industry partner, GE will give the Chicago institute access to crowdsourcing technology, allowing teams to collaborate on design and manufacturing in “the cloud.” In Detroit, GE materials scientists will help guide new ideas and concepts in materials manufacturing. The company is also working with the Youngstown institute, which is focusing on 3D printing.
Mark Little, head of GE Global Research, says that manufacturing is “entering the Third Industrial Revolution” and requires workers to master new, advanced skills.
He sees the “21st century assembly line” as “a digital thread” connecting design with production and the manufacturing supply chain. “It will invite a whole new community of small and medium-sized businesses, individual entrepreneurs and the Maker movement to be key partners in this new manufacturing ecosystem,” Little says. “That is exactly what these two institutes will help to cultivate, and in the process encourage the growth of America’s manufacturing base and jobs.”
Furstoss says GE is already using some “Brilliant Factory” features at its new plant in Albany making advanced Durathon batteries. The factory installed more than 10,000 sensors that measure temperature, humidity, air pressure and machine operations data. Workers can remotely monitor production from wireless tablets, adjust conditions and prevent malfunctions with the swipe of a finger.
Furstoss says that designers, production engineers, and supply chain partners will soon collaborate on crowdsourcing platforms and virtually test the manufacturing process without touching materials or machines. “They will download the process to intelligent machines on the factory floor when they are ready,” she says. “When production starts, they will be able to make real-time adjustments based on what’s happening to optimize efficiency.”
Says Little: “Imagine a factory that can continuously self-improve its products and processes. With a seamless digital thread that can gather, analyze and transmit data real-time to different parts of the supply chain, that day is coming.”
This hand was 3D printed on an Objet Connex500 machine that can use two different resins at the same time. In this example, designers used a hard resin for the bones and a soft one for the flesh. GE is not moving into making body parts, yet, but 3D printing is helping engineers rapidly prototype and test their designs, and speed up parts development.
In the movie Fitzcarraldo, a music-obsessed Irishman played by Klaus Kinski successfully lifts a 300-ton steamboat across a Peruvian mountain range to build an opera house in the jungle. A Peruvian gas company recently completed a similar feat in the reverse direction, albeit with much less whimsy and a lot more planning.
The company, Transportadora de Gas del Peru (TgP), built a 700-mile long pipeline that carries natural gas from the Cusco region in the middle of the jungle in east Peru across the jagged mountain ranges of the Andes and down to Peru’s capital Lima on the Pacific coast.
The pipeline peaks at more than 13,400 feet (4,090 meters) - almost as high as the Matterhorn in the Alps. This umbilical cord supplies 80 percent of Peru’s energy, including the fuel to generate half of Peru’s electricity.
TgP is using 12 GE Waukesha gas engines to pump natural gas from the wells in Cusco, compress it and push it over the mountains. “The industry has been changed by this product,” says Edilberto Amaya, transmission manager at TgP. “Instead of using diesel or petroleum, we are currently using natural gas. It benefits us, first, because natural gas is clean, environmentally friendly and ecological. In addition, it’s cheaper.”
Ricardo Pereira, TgP’s general manager, says that the pipeline allowed Peruvian consumers of electricity to save more than $16 million from its installation in 2004 through 2012.
A dozen GE Waukesha engines push natural gas up 13,000 feet though a 700-mile long pipeline across the Andes in Peru. The vital pipeline supplies the country with 80 percent of its energy needs.
The engines are running alone in the wilderness, disconnected from the rigid skeleton of the power grid. They are an example of a new dynamic power movement enabled by the growing availability of natural gas.
The shift from centralized power to localized electricity generation and distribution is transforming the energy landscape. So much so that GE has launched a new business in the space yesterday.
Called Distributed Power, the unit will bring together GE’s best technologies already operating in the field. They include the Waukesha and Jenbacher gas engines, and the so-called “aeroderivates,” a family of nimble gas turbines built around jet engine technology. The turbines have many applications and some serve as mobile power plants that can be quickly deployed in remote areas, such as the Algerian desert. GE will also invest $1.4 billion in new distributed power technology, research and services.
“The proliferation of distributed power systems is benefiting people and industries around the world because power is crucial to improving the quality of life and economic development,” said Lorraine Bolsinger, leader of the new Distributed Power business. “Our opportunity is greatest in emerging economies where large-scale power generation projects can be harder to finance and slower to develop than smaller, modular distributed power systems needed to serve rapid economic growth.”
To be sure, GE is not turning its back on the grid. But many people will simply never be connected to it. In Kenya, for example, only between 16 to 18 percent of residents have access to electricity. This leaves some 35 million Kenyans dependent on kerosene, candles, and wood. That’s not the stuff that will set the economy on fire. Switching to distributed electricity generation is a quick and powerful solution similar to when parts of India, China and Africa embraced cell phones and leap-frogged telephone landlines a decade ago.
GE’s Jenbacher engines, for example, are already making electricity from biogas produced from garbage, cheese whey, and even discarded school lunches (see graphic above). They power a Cambodian rice mill, a Guinness brewery and a plant making anti-malarial equipment in Nigeria, and a town in the Philippines destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan last year.
One of the structures that survived Typhoon Haiyan’s 150 mph winds was a green container that housed a Jenbacher in Bogo City in the Philippines. It became a place where locals came to recharge their phones, access the Internet, and get updates about their families. Credit: Dan McDougall
Distributed power technology has also many applications in the developed world. Germany, for example, will lose as much as a fifth of its lifeblood electricity over the next decade as the country pulls the plug on nuclear reactors. A process called Energiewende will replace nuclear power with a combination of electricity from natural gas and renewables.
Bavaria’s town of Rosenheim, population 61,000, is getting ready. It is using five Jenbachers to produce a fifth of its heat and 40 percent of its electricity. They also help the locals to incorporate renewables into the grid. “Let me tell you, living in Germany, the sun isn’t out all the time,” says Scott Nolen, product line leader for power generating gas engines at GE Power & Water. “With this engine, you can really have that flexibility, to be able to start up, meet the demand and then shut down quickly without wasting a lot of fuel when the sun does come out.”
Nolen says that clusters of Jenbachers could generate over 100 megawatts of power and achieve power and thermal efficiency approaching 90 percent. “This is why distributed power is so attractive,” he says. “You have the capability to supply the engines all over the place where people need heat and power and get maximum efficiency out of every precious hydrocarbon molecule you have to burn.”
This image shows a typical GE mobile power plant installation. This Algerian plant includes four TM2500 aeroderivative turbines. They can generate more than 70 megawatts of power.