Everything is bigger in Texas, including the state’s appetite for electricity. No other state consumes more power, a whopping 10 percent of the national total.
All that demand, however, is straining the local grid. Large power plant owners in Texas have been raising alarm about the possibility of regular rolling blackouts unless the state overhauls its wholesale electric market and adds capacity. But one independent power developer just found a solution: a 20-cylinder gas engine the size of a school bus made by GE in the picturesque Alpine town of Jenbach in Austria.
The J920 is the size of a school bus. Image credit: GE Distributed Power
The engine, called the J920 FleXtra, is the largest and most efficient gas engine GE has ever built. It is making its American debut in Texas. Power developer Sky Global Partners will use six of them to supply 50 megawatts of peak power to the San Bernard Electric Cooperative. The co-op has more than 17,000 members spread across seven counties in South-Central Texas.
The engine is so nimble that it can ramp up to full power in just 5 minutes when preheated. That’s warp speed for utilities. It can help stabilize the grid when demand peaks and the price of electricity shoots up, like during a heat wave.
“This project is the center of our power strategy going forward,” said Billy Marricle, president and general manager of San Bernard. “It provides us with unprecedented system security, protection from wholesale price spikes and the opportunity to increase the value of our cooperative.”
The engine is equipped with turbocharging technology similar to systems used by Formula 1 cars. It helps the engine convert nearly half of the energy from burning gas to electricity. Its combined power and thermal efficiency can reach a chart-topping 90 percent or more.
Six Jenbacher engines will generate 50 megawatts of peak power for 17,000 customers. Photo credits: GE Distributed Power
The world’s first J920 FleXtra has been commercially operating in Rosenheim, Bavaria, since 2013. It’s helping the town meet the strict demands of Energiewende, Germany’s power overhaul program. Its goal is to generate 80 percent of all electricity from renewable resources by 2050.
GE scientists are working on a wearable, high-resolution imaging “helmet” that would allow doctors to observe our brains on the cellular level. The portable device could also allow doctors to study motor activity in the brain, since patients will be able to move around as their brains are being imaged.
“If successful, this effort would represent a monumental advancement in imaging technology that will enhance the understanding of brain function both in normal and diseased states,” says Nadeem Ishaque, global technology director for diagnostics and biomedical technologies at GE Global Research (GRC).
The project is part of President Obama’s Brain Initiative, which he launched in April 2013. Its goals range from developing new ways to image the brain and study its function, to uncovering, treating and preventing brain disease and disorders like Alzheimer’s, autism and concussions.
Yesterday, the National Institutes of Health announced that a group of businesses, universities, foundations and federal agencies would share $46 million from the program to “revolutionize our understanding of the human brain.”
The group includes GE, as well as Google, the Simmons Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to The New York Times.
“The human brain is the most complicated biological structure in the known universe,” said Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “We’ve only just scratched the surface in understanding how it works or, unfortunately, doesn’t quite work when disorders and disease occur.”
The “helmet” PET scanner will use a new class of detectors called silicon photo multipliers (right). They will replace bulky detectors currently used in PET scanners (left). Top image: The new detectors will allow scientists to build a lightweight, high-resolution, high-sensitivity scanner that fits around the head of the subject. Image credit: GE Global Research
GE is developing the helmet in partnership with the West Virginia University, the University of Washington, and the University of California-Davis. It will use positron emission tomography (PET) to reach down to the level of individual cells, and look for misfolded proteins and other signs of neurological disorders. “Today, many important classes of neurons and glial cells remain undetectable by imaging techniques because of their very low concentration,” Ishaque says. “This device could help us understand how brain circuits and networks work, and how they are organized.”
Unlike X-ray scanners and MRI machines, which image physical structures like bones and organs, PET detectors study the body’s functions. Doctors first inject patients with special tracer molecules that attach themselves to target tissues. Since the tracers contain radioactive isotopes, physicians can listen for their signals and measure their distribution. “You can spot cancer cells dividing this way,” says Ravindra Manjeshwar, who runs the functional imaging laboratory at the GRC. Indeed, PET is now mostly used to monitor the spread of cancer and response to cancer treatment.
But GE scientists have developed new classes of tracers that can zero in on neuroinflamation, which can be present during concussion, and amyloid plaque and tau proteins, which are thought to be associated with Alzheimer’s.
They plan to leverage the helmet’s super-sensitive hardware and software to reduce the amount of tracers needed for imaging. Ishaque says that such “micro-doses” would “reduce radiation exposure to patients to only about as much radiation as a cross-country flight, while still delivering high-resolution images.”
Manjeshwar says that the new technology could help scientists make “a quantum leap” in what they can detect in the brain. “We still know very little about the brain, and PET images are still very fuzzy and blobby,” he says. “But this technology could improve our molecular sensitivity by a couple of orders of magnitude.”
(GE is also pursuing brain research with the NFL as part of the Head Health Initiative. See here for more information.)
Rural Grand Gedeh County covers thousands of square miles of lush Liberian rainforest far from epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in the capital of Monrovia. But that doesn’t mean it’s been spared. “Right now the burden of the disease is the worst in the capital,” says Rebecca Rollins, interim chief communications officer for the Boston-based health NGO Partners in Health (PIH), one of the groups helping to fight the disease. “But we believe the rural areas will be the hardest hit next.”
Rollins returned from Grand Gedeh last week. She said that Ebola has paralyzed the region’s already weak healthcare systems. People with symptoms make the 10-hour trip along a rutted road to the capital and others decide to stay away from doctors altogether, setting the stage for a larger healthcare crisis. “People are afraid,” she says. “They are not getting any routine vaccination, prenatal care and other treatment. This is an area with malaria and measles. When we arrived at the local hospital, it was dark and empty of patients and medical supplies.”
Grand Gedeh is 10 hours away from the capital of Monrovia. The roads can be tricky. Top image: The Partners In Health Advance Ebola Response Team visits the Martha Tubman Memorial Hospital in Zwedru, Liberia, in the southeastern region of the country. Photo by Rebecca E. Rollins / Partners In Health
According to World Bank estimates, there are fewer than two doctors for every 100,000 people in Liberia and Sierra Leone. (There are about 2.5 doctors per 1,000 people in the U.S.) Even staffed Ebola treatment centers can’t provide enough care and lack properly trained healthcare workers. In rural areas like Grand Gedeh, the situation is even worse.
That’s why PIH recently joined the local non-profit Last Mile Health to fight the crisis. Last week, the two groups received $2 million from the GE Foundation to help fund the effort, whose budget could reach $100 million over the next year.
A rural clinic in Grand Gedeh. Image credit: Last Mile Health
The coalition plans to use the money to build a force of 500 health workers to staff 47 health centers in Liberia and Sierra Leone. They will also train an additional corps of 800 community health workers who will work in villages and focus on education, surveillance and monitoring.
In the future, the coalition will help the local Ministries of Health transition from the Ebola response to a more robust health system. “We need a clear and comprehensive strategy to fight Ebola and improve healthcare in the villages,” says Dr. Raj Panjabi, Last Mile Health’s founder. “Ebola started in the rainforest and it could have stopped there if we had a health care system in place.”
Panjabi is a protégé of Paul Farmer, PIH’s founder. Farmer started his organization in 1987 to bring healthcare to residents living on Haiti’s mountainous Central Plateau. PIH has since become one of the leading NGOs fighting disease around the world, from tuberculosis to HIV.
A team from Partners in Health including Paul Farmer, in the middle with a tie, visited Grand Gedeh last week. Image credit: Rebecca Rollins, Partners in Health
Panjabi was born and raised in Monrovia. His parents immigrated to Liberia in the 1970s, but the family moved again after civil war broke out two decades later. “We were lucky and got on a cargo plane,” he says. “I’ve never forgotten the people we left on the tarmac.”
He attended medical school in the U.S. and returned back to Liberia after graduation. “There was devastation everywhere,” he says. “In the rural areas, people lost their lives when they got sick just because the closest care was two days away.”
Last month, the Partners In Health Advance Ebola Response Team visited frontline health workers from Last Mile Health in Grand Gedeh. Image credit: Rebecca Rollins, Partners In Health
Taking a page from Farmer, he started Last Mile Health to bring basic care to remote villages in the country. His network could now serve as an important bulwark in the fight against Ebola.
PIH and Last Mile Health will use the money from the GE Foundation to mobilize Last Mile’s network of rural health workers and build local treatment units. “We started out by training village health workers, providing them with equipment so they could become professional healthcare practitioners and handle medical conditions ranging from malaria to hypertension,” Panjabi says. “We are now teaching them to recognize Ebola, and isolate and care for those who got sick.”
Rollins says that doctors have to start treating patients where they get infected. “An important part of managing the crisis is tracing the patient’s contacts,” Rollins says. “You cannot do that with patients who traveled many hours to reach you.”
A natural bridge in Grand Gedeh. Photo credit: Last Mile Health
The Ebola outbreak appears to be far from over. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control together with World Health Organization reported that as of September 23, there were 6,574 cases of the hemorrhagic fever caused by the Ebola virus in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal. Those cases, which are almost certainly an undercount, resulted in 3,091 deaths.
“The reports we are hearing in the US is that people in West Africa are dying of a powerful disease that can’t be cured,” Rollins says. “The truth is that people are dying because of inadequate health care. We can help.”
Best friends in Grand Gedeh. Photo credit: Last Mile Health
Anyone who’s met her will tell you that Harriet is not like other house guests.
When she arrived from France in Greenville, SC, earlier this year, her hosts at a local GE gas turbine factory had to build a new train turntable just to get her settled in her quarters. They also erected a gas plant to keep her fed.
That’s because Harriet, whose real name is the 9HA, is the largest and most efficient gas turbine in the world.
Harriet has a cousin, the 7HA, engineered for countries like the United States where electric current oscillates at 60 hertz. GE just announced that it would supply four of them to Exelon, one of the largest power generators in the U.S. Exelon will deploy them in Texas.
The Exelon deal, which is valued at more than $500 million, follows more than $1.3 billion in orders for the technology from customers in France, Japan, Germany and Russia.
Harriet weighs 800,000 pounds. GE engineers had to use four different modes of transportation - ship, truck, barge, and rail - to bring her from France to Greenville for testing.
When hooked up in a power plant with steam turbines and generators, the four 7HA gas turbines will generate 2,000 megawatts, enough electricity to power more than 2 million homes. That’s more than a nuclear power plant.
The turbines will allow Exelon to supply the Texas grid with energy that is cheaper to produce and more profitable. “This is industry leading technology,” says Mike Gradoia, product marketing manager for Harriet. “Fifteen years ago you would need twice as many units to deliver the same amount of power. But they would have been less efficient, burning more fuel and therefore generating more emissions.”
GE spent more than $1 billion to develop the turbines. The company built a special testing center in Greenville, where engineers are currently putting the first Harriet through tests.
The turbine, which was manufactured at a GE plant in Belfort, France, is equipped with more than 3,000 sensors. They collect mechanical, temperature and exhaust data, and feed it to a brand new data-crunching center next door. (It the future, she will be able to talk to other machines over the Industrial Internet.)
Under the hood, Harriet combines designs and materials originally developed by GE scientists for supersonic jet engines and other advanced technology. They include aerodynamic blades made from single-crystal alloys, thermal barrier coatings and ceramic matrix composites. Later generations of the turbine will also include 3D-printed parts.
Advanced materials allow the turbines to operate at temperatures as high as 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit, while also giving parts longer lifespans. “When you can fire the machines higher, you can extract more energy,” Gradoia says. “But it also means that some components are operating in an environment hotter than their melting temperature. We make it work, but there is a lot of science behind it.”
The design allows the Harriet to reach a combined cycle efficiency that exceeds 61 percent, a number that has been called the Holy Grail in the power generation business.
Harriet is powering through tests in Greenville.
The turbine is also very flexible, which means that the entire power plant can quickly ramp up from zero to full output in just 30 minutes. This allows utilities to respond to changing power demand and even bundle in the grid intermittent sources of renewable power like wind and solar. “When you need it, you hit a button and power is there when the wind stops blowing,” Gradoia says.
The four new turbines will be working at Exelon’s Wolf Hollow plant near Dallas and its Colorado Bend facility near Houston. They are due to ship in 2016 and are expected to come online in 2017.
Last summer, GE invited the DJ and musician Matthew Dear to listen to the sounds of jet engines, MRIs and turbines, and turn them into a dance track. In September, the company brought the dancer and Internet sensation Marquese Scott to its bootcamp for jet engines in Peebles, Ohio, and asked him to choreograph a dance performance to the track, called Drop Science. His stage was the cavernous cell where GE tests the GEnx, the LEAP and other jet engines.
Marquese was dancing in silver Mission “space sneakers” launched by GE in July to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. GE developed the silicon rubber for Buzz Aldrin’s and Neil Armstrong’s original moon boots. Likewise, the Mission sneakers use carbon fiber fabric, hydrophobic coating and other advanced materials. Take a look.
Brigitte Prat runs Lulu’s Cuts & Toys, a popular hair salon for kids in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. She rewards new bobs with pretty orange balloons, but the practice is growing costly. “I used to put one on every arm and every stroller that rolled through my store, but now I keep them behind the counter,” she says. “I am paying an arm and a leg for my helium.”
Prat is far from alone. The U.S. is running out of helium, ironically the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. The shortage is no laughing matter for makers of magnetic resonance machines, who use it to cool down powerful superconducting magnets.
GE, for example, is investing $17 million in a new plant in Florence, SC, to recycle helium used for cooling magnets for MR machines. Some of them use as much as 10,000 liters of liquid helium. That’s why engineers at GE Global Research are also designing new machines that will need as little as 10 liters. “When you power up a super-cooled magnet, it can produce the same magnetic field for a thousand years with no more power required,” says MR engineer and inventor Trifon Laskaris.
Robot welders work with steady precision to create a continuous seal on the vacuum vessel foe an MRI magnet. Top image: A worker injects helium into the finished magnet, the final step of the manufacturing process. Image credit: @seenewphoto
GE Healthcare uses about 5.5 million liters of helium a year at the Florence plant. It uses another 6 million liters a year to service and top off MRI systems at hospitals and clinics.
Helium cools the machines’ magnets to minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 269 Celsius), near absolute zero. At that temperature they lose all electrical resistance and become superconductive.
Workers pump the helium inside a sealed vacuum system surrounding the magnets. The Florence plant is using robotic welders to manufacture the helium vessels (see pictures above and below). The finished product can maintain a better vacuum than outer space.
The current helium shortage is partially self-inflicted. Helium is a waste product of helium-rich natural gas located in deposits stretching from Texas to Montana. In 1925, the U.S. government got into the helium business to secure supplies for defense needs. Helium-filled airships traveled as escorts with supply convoys to Europe during World War II, and demand grew even more during the Cold War and the space race.
Each 3 Tesla MRI magnet contains over 125 miles of copper and niobium titanium wiring. This wiring has enough strength to lift a car. Image credit: @seenewphoto.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 got the government out of the business of producing the gas. But sales from the huge U.S. helium reserve stored in porous rock deep underneath Amarillo, Texas, kept down prices and gave private producers few incentives to enter the market. The shortage followed.
Last year, Congress passed a new law designed to ease the helium shortage, but businesses like GE are not taking chances.
Recycling and innovation will help keep helium from becoming a hot commodity. They might also preserve Prat’s orange balloons on Brooklyn streets.
When Dr. Rajesh Kumar meets his patients for the fist time, they can often fit into the palms of his hands.
Kumar is a medical specialist who cares for tiny infants in Jharkhand, the largely rural Indian state located west of Kolkata. Jharkand has 33 million residents, but just a few doctors like Kumar. On any given day, Kumar’s team of twenty pediatricians and neonatologists working at the Rani Children Hospital in the state capital of Ranchi have up to 100 newborns in their care. Some weigh less than two pounds at birth. The babies sorely need modern medical technology to grow and get better, but it had been slow to reach them.
Things started changing three years ago, when Kumar’s neonatal intensive care unit installed new Lullaby baby warmers and photo-therapy technology developed by GE in India specifically for the rigors of the local market.
The units are not the same high-end machines you might find in an American hospital, but sturdy and more affordable clones. In Jharkand, for example, the annual per capita income is just $680 and working electricity is not always a given.
Coming up with the right design required a new kind of insight. ”You can’t take a product and simply strip it down and replace expensive parts with cheaper ones,” Vikram Damodaran, director of healthcare innovations at Wipro GE Healthcare recently told The New York Times. “It has to come from the ground up, with a lot of input from the people who might actually use it.”
On a typical day, the Rani Children Hospital is using GE technology to care for as many as 100 tiny patients. Top image: GE’s Lullaby phototherapy system.
The Lullaby warmers are helping Kumar’s tiniest patients maintain their body temperature. The GE engineering team redesigned the machine’s controls and included buttons with intuitive icons and dials to give nurses more time to focus on the baby, rather than switches.
The Lullaby warmers work in combination with Lullaby phototherapy systems, which were also re-engineered by GE. Doctors use them to treat infants with neonatal jaundice, a common illness caused by their immature livers. Left untreated, the yellow byproduct of dying blood cells called bilirubin can build up in the body and damage the developing brain. Without phototherapy, they would have to receive blood transfusion but the technology helps the tiny bodies to get rid of the substance.
Dr. Rajesh Kumar is using redesigned GE medical machines to care for his patients.
Engineers working at GE’s research center in Bangalore, India, equipped the new phototherapy machines with special LED lights that can last almost six years, or 50,000 hours, 25 times longer than standard fluorescent lamps that use five times as much electricity. “Technologies like low cost baby warmers and LED phototherapy systems can help save many newborn lives every day, especially in a country like India,” Kumar said.
Hospitals in Europe like the simplified functions so much that they have placed their own orders for the redesigned machines. ”There has been a shift,” Shyam Rajan, chief technology officer at Wipro Healthcare, told the Times. “Before, it was India for India. Today, it is India for the World.”
Most travelers don’t have a garbage dump on their travel itinerary. But for people like José Baroni, it’s the top destination.
Baroni spent the last two years commuting to a growing landfill in Guatapará City, a small town some 200 miles west of Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo. The landfill opened in 2007 and every day it receives a convoy of trucks filled with 3,500 tons of household and industrial waste from the big city. All that waste is producing copious amounts of landfill methane, and that’s what Baroni’s after.
Baroni is a sales manager at GE’s new Distributed Power business in Brazil. His job is to help customers like Estre and ENC Energy, the partners that operate the landfill, to capture the methane and turn it into electricity. “The Brazilian government wants more electricity produced by renewable resources,” Baroni says. “Using landfill methane as a fuel is a good way to do it.”
Earlier this year, Baroni’s business installed three powerful Jenbacher gas engines at the Guatapará City landfill (see above). Together they can generate 4.2 megawatts, enough electricity to power 13,000 Brazilian homes, or more than the entire population of Guatapará.
There are four other Jenbacher-powered projects like this one in Brazil and hundreds more around the world. GE has been converting landfill methane into electricity for 25 years.
GE has installed more than 1,650 Jenbacher engines at landfills in over 30 countries, including recently at a large municipal waste dump in Paris. Together they generate over 1,650 megawatts of electricity, and remove millions of tons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Landfill gas is produced by the respiration of anaerobic bacteria deep in the oxygen-free guts of garbage dumps. Unlike natural gas, which is mostly methane, it includes impurities such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide. They can cause problems during burning, but GE engineers designed the Jenbacher engines so they can swallow the impurities and run at full load despite fluctuations of gas quality and pressure.
Projects capturing landfill gas are not going away anytime soon. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute estimates that in the U.S. alone landfills release in the atmosphere some 100 million metric tons carbon equivalent every year. Methane is also 21 times more powerful in trapping heat than CO2. In America, landfills are the third-largest man-made source of methane, accounting for 17 percent of methane emissions in 2012.
“The landfill is not the prettiest place to be,” Baroni says. “But with this technology, we can turn trash to treasure.”
Hilary Monaco has a black belt in Taekwondo, and she can take a few punches. When her sparring partner landed a hard kick to her head during practice last fall, she didn’t think much of it.
Two weeks later, she advanced to the final round of a big tournament and received another hit to the head. But this time, her body served her a severe warning. “The next day I couldn’t stand up, I was dizzy, and couldn’t focus or look at a computer screen without getting a splitting headache,” Monaco says. Her friends rushed her to the emergency room where she was diagnosed with a concussion.
Hilary Monaco, up and above right, during Taekwondo practice. Image Credit: Hilary Monaco
Monaco, who is 25 years old and a graduate student of computational biology at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Cornell University in New York, naturally worried about her brain and also about her ability to remain active in her favorite sport. She sought out Dr. Teena Shetty, a neurologist at Manhattan’s Hospital for Special Surgery, and a neuro-trauma consultant for the New York Mets and the New York Giants.
Shetty has been on a mission to learn more about traumatic brain injuries, diagnose and treat them faster, and reduce their long-term consequences. She says that concussions are notoriously difficult to diagnose objectively even with the latest medical equipment like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Her research is driven by a real need, she says. “There is a lot of awareness of concussions, but we still don’t have an optimal tool to see them.”
In 2013, Shetty launched a unique research program at her hospital looking for telltale biomarkers in the brain, including microbleeds and changes in water movement in the brain. They could help doctors get better at diagnosing concussions, selecting the right therapy, and improving treatment outcomes for patients.
Shetty is still seeking to enroll more people into the program. “I would like to have as much data as possible to work with,” she says. She is looking for patients between the ages of 15 and 50, who had an acute concussion less than 10 days ago.
The project is sponsored by the Head Health Initiative, a $60 million partnership between GE and the NFL. It has two goals: Help doctors find links between physical symptoms and changes in the brain that can be detected by medical technology like MRI. GE also plans to use the findings to build better MRI machines.
“The routine MRI was designed to look at soft tissue, blood vessels and structural anatomy,” Shetty says. “By comparing what we see on the images of the whole brain with the symptoms we gather during the actual neurological examination in the office, we’re starting to see correlations.”
Dr. Teena Shetty is a neuro-trauma consultant for the New York Mets and the New York Giants.
Shetty and her team started by gathering a lot of clinical data from patients like Monaco. They get screened and examined four times: within 72 hours of injury and then after 10 days, one month and three months. “We want to see how their brain is changing, healing and responding to treatment,” Shetty says. “There are a great deal of hypotheses on what is happening in the brain and few answers.”
Shetty is using a GE-designed MRI machine to study her patients. She is looking for a set of biomarkers that include microbleeds caused by sheared neurons, changes in the size of different brain regions, metabolic changes inside brain cells, and also their ability to pass on signals. “Contrary to an ordinary bruise, the force of the impact isn’t localized,” says Ajit Shankaranarayana, who oversees the development of neurological applications for MRI at GE Healthcare. “It will travel through the entire brain. That’s why the symptoms can show up in different parts of the organ.”
Shankaranarayana says that his team is using Dr. Shetty’s results to develop a sensitive whole-body scanner that could peer deep into the brain. It could be equipped with a new suite of imaging software allowing doctors to measure the critical biomarkers. “The guts of the typical MRI machine will have to change,” he says. “There is a big need for this technology.”
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury in the U.S every year, leading to 52,000 deaths.
Like other patients in the study, Monaco went through the screening and treatment course. Dr. Shetty monitored her symptoms and guided her through recovery. “The first thing she told me was to stop thinking,” Monaco recalls. “If you have a broken leg, don’t walk, she said. If you have a broken brain, you give it a rest.”
The odd thing is that doctors still haven’t figured out the best way to make their patients refrain from thinking. “My treatment regimen was very strict,” Monaco says. “But it does not have to be so in the future and this research can help.”
For the first few weeks she abstained from watching TV, reading, listening to music, and using her computer and apps on her smartphone. “We are all so connected, but not reading was actually the hardest thing,” she says.
Today, Monaco is back on the Taekwondo circuit. “Seeing Dr. Shetty was a real education,” she says. “I talked to her and realized that the first time I got hit, I had a concussion too.”
The Head Health research program now also includes the University of California – San Francisco (UCSF) and the Houston Methodist hospital. GE’s goal is to build the tools for its research partners and enable the science that will eventually drive better medical care, says Amy Gallenberg, who runs the Head Health Initiative’s research work at GE. “The Head Health Initiative provides a great platform to further this cause not only for athletes but for our military populations as well,” she says. “We need to understand the brain better.”
The Panama Canal is a full century old, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t grow. The 48-mile-long landmark that cuts across “the backbone of the Western Hemisphere” is going through the final year of a massive expansion. When work is completed in 2015, new locks will allow giant “New Panamax” class of container ships and supertankers through and boost the canal’s capacity by half.
The $5-billion project has also energized American, ports from Miami to Boston. They have invested another billion in dredging their harbors and building up infrastructure to handle plus-size vessels carrying everything from neckties to natural gas.
When the Panama Canal opened 100 years ago this summer, it relied on the world’s largest electrical system, built by GE. The canal is still using GE-powered tugs to move ships through its locks, and more of the boats are under construction.
This Cheoy Lee Z-Tech 6500 tug built for the Panama Canal Authority is powered by two GE 2,965-horsepower engines. Top Image: The Panama Canal is going through a major expansion that will double the canal’s capacity. Credit: Canal de Panamá
In 1914, the canal used 500 GE motors to operate the locks, with 500 more installed elsewhere in the system. GE also built the power plants that provided the canal with electricity and designed the centralized control equipment for the locks.
This drawing shows the GE-designed centralized control board for operating locks and electric mules. The control room is on the left on the top of the lock building. Credit: Schenectady Museum of Innovation and Science
One historian noted that GE “produced about half the electrical equipment needed during construction and virtually all of the permanent motors, relays, switches, wiring and generating equipment. They also built the original locks towing locomotives and all of the lighting.”
Some 60,000 workers used 25 million pounds of dynamite to cut through the “backbone of the Western Hemisphere,” as they referred to the Isthmus of Panama. Credit: Schenectady Museum of Innovation and Science
Those 40 electric towing locomotives were made in Schenectady, NY. Since ships were not permitted to pass through the locks under their own power, these “lock mules” rode on rails next to the canal and pulled them through the locks. Custom gears and electrical design allowed them to run as slow as 1 mph, the speed required for gently tugging large vessels.
A Schenectady “mule” (on the right) pulls a ship through a set of Panama Canal locks. Credit: Schenectady Museum of Innovation and Science
Management expert Tom Kendrick says that supplying the Panama Canal with electrical equipment was GE’s first large government contract. “Such a large-scale collaboration of private and public organizations was unknown prior to this time,” Kendrick writes. “The relationship used by [the Panama Canal construction supervisor George] Goethals and GE served as the model for the Manhattan Project during World War II and for countless other modern projects in the United States and elsewhere.”
Mules had to ride up a steep incline to the top of the gates of the lock. Credit: Schenectady Museum of Innovation and Science
Today, the canal is still using a fleet of tugs powered by 12-cylinder marine diesel engines made by GE Transportation. In 2012, the Panama Canal Authority ordered 14 new tugs with GE engines to handle the boom in traffic after the canal expansion is finished in 2015.
The collaboration between the U.S. government, which led the construction, and GE served as a model for future public-private partnerships. Credit: Schenectady Museum of Innovation and Science
Two years ago, the artist and musician David Byrne created a series of installations called Playing the Building, in which he converted cavernous warehouses in New York, London and Minneapolis into gigantic musical instruments.
Byrne stood on the shoulders of artists like composer Annie Gosfield, who more than a decade ago recorded sounds produced by massive metal presses, welding guns and mallets banged on acid baths at an electric motor factory in Nuremberg, Germany, and turned them into a harmonious industrial symphony called Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery.
Industrial companies are now also joining the movement. Last year, GE and CSX let Ladytron’s Reuben Wu record a giant container shipping terminal in Ohio, and in July, GE invited DJ and musician Matthew Dear to hunt for interesting sounds at its global research headquarters in upstate New York.
GE also set up Dear with a library of 1,000 sounds generated by machines spanning its entire industrial portfolio, from jet engines to MRI scanners. Dear turned the sounds into a propulsive track called Drop Science. He talked to GE Reports editor, Tomas Kellner, about his sonic adventure.
Tomas Kellner: What attracted you to the project?
Matthew Dear: I’ve become known as someone who likes to mess with everyday sounds and incorporate them into music. You can hear that all the way back to my [early records like] Backstroke. My albums are always very dense with natural sounds that sound very real and electronic at the same time.
TK: Was the creative process for Drop Science different from making a track for one of your records?
MD: When I’m making a record, I usually produce a song in a week or so. It’s a very organic process. But a project like this can be a daunting and overwhelming experience. Just the sound bank I was given to start with was massive.
Matthew Dear recorded sounds for his track Drop Science at GE Global Research labs in Niskayuna, NY.
TK: How did you start?
MD: I tried to listen to as many of the sounds as I could and started looking for those that would fit. A lot of it was just noise that could be a little too aggressive. Nobody wants the sound of an engine running at full volume scratching their ear drum.
Once I found the base sounds, the sounds that I really thought could work, I started whittling them down even further. I put them into samplers and ran them through all sorts of processing equipment in my computer, little plugins that made them sound a little bit different.
It’s almost like a painter taking all his paints, starting to mix them on a board and then getting the palette ready for the painting.
"Nobody wants the sound of an engine running at full volume scratching their ear drum."
TK: How long did it take you to finish Drop Science?
MD: It took me about a week and a half to arrive at a core group of sounds that could easily become something bigger. That’s when I started playing with sequencing and the length of the track.
It was a little confusing at first because some things sounded just too machine-like, just a little too mechanical. But once I made some executive decisions, it fell into place.
TK: What kind of executive decisions?
MD: The drums, for example. I decided that I’m going to create them in my studio with my own equipment. But they will be a reflection of my time spent at the research center. It was kind of a push and pull between what happened and what I imagined happened.
TK: Do you have a favorite sound?
MD: At the lab, they had a really long tube, a test apparatus. I was running up and down and messing with it and hitting it with a stick. It sounded like you were dropping a coin into a thousand-foot well. It had a really cool, bubbly reverb sound.
Matthew Dear is making metal music.
TK: What about machine sounds?
MD: It terms of the sounds they gave me, I liked the MRI sounds the best. They were hit or miss, but those that really worked reminded me of a lot of stuff that I use in my own songs. They were very cyclical, almost like a sequencer. They sounded like an analog synthesizer that I could loop and play with.
TK: What kind of sounds did GE give you?
MD: They gave me a whole batch of sounds. There were sounds from some equipment north of the Arctic Circle in Norway and also from a jet engine test. I couldn’t go to all of those places myself. I took them and blended them with those that I recorded personally.
TK: Could you record anywhere at the lab?
MD: We didn’t really have any closed doors. I got to see a lot of things and talked to a lot of people. I did not feel at any time that GE had its own notion of what the result should sound like, as it could with a project like this. They were very open to the artistic experience. They wanted the whole thing to be a very natural process.
TK: Can you describe it?
MD: It was like a melding of minds. There was the team from m ss ng p eces filming it, we had The Barbarian Group, which is known for very creative ads that push boundaries, and then GE, which is just so massive and creative in its own sense. It did not feel at any point like it was a commercial experience.
TK: Did you draw inspiration from other projects?
MD: I’m familiar with David Byrne’s installations. It was great to be able to continue the legacy of blending machines and music.
Nigeria has fast become Africa’s largest economy, but its infrastructure is still lagging.
The electrical grid is so unpredictable that many businesses use natural gas to produce their own power. But that’s not enough. Sand and water often clog up pipelines and idle generators for weeks at a time. In many parts of the country diesel is still the best and most reliable fuel.
But it’s also expensive. That’s why GE engineers recently converted a powerful diesel engine from a locomotive into an efficient stationary power plant that can produce enough electricity to supply a factory, or 6,600 Nigerian homes.
The project was also an exercise in FastWorks, a set of tools and principles currently transforming GE culture into a leaner and faster company working close to customers.
GE engineers switched the Jenbacher J616 gas-fired reciprocating engine (above) to diesel in 2007. They used the efficient and powerful engine to power the PowerHaul locomotive (below). Top Image: GE’s new diesel engines from the PowerHaul will generate electricity for two Nigerian flour mills.
In late 2012, engineers at two GE businesses units, Distributed Power and GE Transportation, noticed that there was demand for efficient diesel generators in Africa’s growing markets. “We had to move quickly,” says Cory Nelson, general manager for diesel engines at Distributed Power. “Instead of starting with a blank canvas, we looked around for pieces of technology that we might have on the shelf.”
They found the 130-ton PowerHaul diesel-electric locomotive, which GE Transportation developed in the U.S. in 2007 and sold to railroads in the U.K., Turkey and South Korea. The locomotive was powered by a modified reciprocating diesel engine built by Distributed Power’s Jenbacher unit in Austria.
Engineers recently converted the PowerHaul’s engine into a stationary power plant that will supply distributed power to two Nigerian flour mills.
The joint team pulled out the locomotive’s engine, re-engineered it, and turned it into a stand-alone power station. They took the best from both businesses - the diesel technology, train engine-grade pumps and piping from GE Transportation. The reciprocating engine and air system came from Jenbacher. Then they together tuned the finished product, called 616 Diesel Engine, to enhance performance.
The process allowed the team to cut the development cycle by half. “We know how to do this,” says James Gamble, an engineer at GE Transportation who had converted locomotive engines for marine power plants and other stationary applications.
GE just announced that Flour Mills of Nigeria Plc., whose popular Golden Penny brand of flour is sold all over the country, will be the first customer for five of the new engines
Flour Mills is already using 11 Jenbacher gas engines to generate 30 megawatts of power for its Apapa Mills outside of Lagos. The first three new diesel engines will produce backup power for Apapa. The other two will generate 5 megawatts of baseload electricity for a mill in Kano in the north of the country.
Says Distributed Power’s Andreas Eberharter, “There is no gas infrastructure in Kano. These engines will be their primary source of power.”
There were people who thought that Italian priest and scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani had bats in the belfry. But he had bats on his mind.
Working in the late 1700s, Spallanzani showed that blindfolded bats could still catch flies and find their way around. But they failed miserably when he sealed up their ears. His discovery of the bat’s “sixth sense,” called echolocation, launched the science of ultrasound.
The pair of “bubbles” in this image are actually a twin pregnancy. Each of the amniotic sacs has a 6-week-old embryo inside. Top image: A real-time 4D ultrasound GIF of a baby’s face.
It took scientists more than a century to explain Spallanzani’s mysterious results and build machines that, like the bat’s larynx and ears, generate inaudible noise and then analyze its echoes. During World War I, the Royal Navy used an early, man-made version of the system to find and sink a German U-Boat in the Atlantic. But things have gotten much more refined since.
Another image of a twin pregnancy at 8.5 weeks.
Today, the latest applications of the technology include “4D” ultrasound machines. They can monitor the fetus in the mother’s belly with startling clarity in the three dimensions and over time. “In the past, you could see a flat two-dimensional image of the fetal profile,” says Barbara Del Prince, a global managing director for ultrasound products at GE Healthcare. “But today you can watch their movements in 3D, see a smile or a grimace, glimpse their personality.”
This image of a 9-week-old fetus shows developing brain structures.
Parents love seeing the pictures, but doctors use the technology to study organs and functions of the fetus like the structure of the brain (see image above) and the working of the heart (below).
Del Prince says that GE’s most advanced system, Voluson E10*, can emit signals and process information fast enough to view the heart in real time. “It may help doctors to make confident diagnoses sooner,” she says.
An image of the developing heart taken during the first trimester with HDlive Flow.
The system is so fast because it is equipped with a new probe technology called “Electronic 4D.” The probe is using more than 8,000 piezoelectric crystals to electronically steer the ultrasound beam and provide clarity and speed.
An image of a fetal heart at 28 weeks obtained with HDlive Flow.
The system also supports a new software feature called HDlive Silhouette, which gives the images their anatomical realism. Doctors can use it particularly in the first trimester to study internal and external organs and body parts of the fetus, such as the brain, face, hands and feet.
A still image of a foot captured from 4D ultrasound with HDlive Silhouette.
Another software feature, HDlive Flow, generates a 3D-view of the blood flow and provides a realistic rendering of blood vessels. “This is really important for doctors when they are looking at abnormalities,” Del Prince says. “But most parents will probably remember the first smile.”
The Voluson E10 is currently available in the U.S., Europe and Japan.
*Voluson is a trademark of the General Electric Co. or one of its subsidiaries.
The oil embargo of 1973 was a dark and miserable period when American towns banned Christmas lights to save electricity, billboards urged citizens to “turn off the damn lights,” and filling stations dispensed gasoline “by appointment only” to “regular customers.” But like the Sputnik launch 15 years before, the crisis forced the government and many businesses to innovate their way out of the crisis.
GE, for example, focused on a class of multi-layered high-tech materials called composites. These materials are made from alternating layers of fiber and sheets of carbon, plastic or ceramics, kind of like industrial-grade baklava. When joined together, composites can be tougher and lighter than steel or titanium. “This was a huge, expensive and risky project,” says Shridhar Nath, who leads the composites lab at GE Global Research. “We planned to replace titanium with what is essentially plastic. We were starting from scratch and we did not know how carbon fiber blades would respond to rain, hail, snow and sand, and the large forces inside the engine.”
The bet paid off and GE has, over time, invested billions more in materials science. The composites research delivered a new line of large, fuel efficient jet engines like the GE90 and GEnx, that changed the economics of aviation forever. “The engines essentially opened the globe up to incredibly efficient, twin-powered, wide-body planes,” says David Joyce, president and CEO of GE Aviation.
The latest engine in that family, the GE9X, will power Boeing’s next-generation 777X long-haul jets. Light-weight carbon composites allowed engineers to design an 11-foot fan that can suck a maelstrom of 8,000 pounds of air per second inside the engine. The air will flows into the combustor, where it meets parts made from ceramic matrix composites (CMCs), another breakthrough material developed by GE scientists.
Carbon fiber composites work with cold air at the front of the engine. But CMCs operate in the engine’s hot section, at temperatures where even metals grow soft. The extra heat gained by the ceramics gives the engine more energy to work with and makes it more efficient.
But that’s not all. CMCs also have twice the strength and just a third of the weight of their metal counterparts. This allows designers to make parts from them thinner and much lighter, further reducing the weight of the engine.
While the GE9X is still in development, the new LEAP jet engine is the first passenger jet engine with CMC parts that’s already going through testing. Although the first LEAP won’t enter service until next year, it is already the bestselling engine in GE history, with more than $100 billion (U.S. list price) in orders.
The demand is so big that GE just decided to build a second plant for making ceramic jet engine parts, even though the first one is still under construction. Says GE researcher Krishnan Luthra, who spent two decades developing the material: “I thought it would be the Holy Grail if we could make it work.”
Following the oil crisis, GE joined NASA’s quest to develop an energy-efficient engine for commercial aircraft. Known as E-cubed, the 1980s program helped GE develop the experimental GE36 unducted turbofan engine with carbon composite propellers.
The engine used carbon fiber composite blades and a hybrid design combining turbofan and turboprop engines. It demonstrated fuel savings of more than 30 percent compared with similar-sized jet engines with conventional fan systems.
Fuel prices dropped again and the GE36 never became a commercial engine. But GE used the technology for making carbon fiber composite blades for its next big engine, the GE90.
GE Aviation’s CEO Brian Rowe led the GE90 development. GE launched the engine in 1991. It was the first commercial engine to use blades made from a carbon fiber composite in the front fan. The engine powers Boeing’s long-range 777 planes.
With a fan that’s 128 inches in diameter, the GE90-115B is also the world’s largest and most most powerful passenger jet engine, according to Guinness World Records. It produced 127,900 pounds of thrust, 50,000 pounds more than the rocket that took Alan Shepard to space. Its thrust can make rocks fly at GE’s jet engine testing base in Victorville, Ca.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired a carbon composite fan blade from the GE90 for its architecture and design collection.
In 1998, GE used CMCs for the first time inside the F414 supersonic jet engine developed for the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet. This image shows the fighter jet breaking through the sound barrier. Photo credit: Jarod Hodge, U.S. Navy.
In 2004, GE started developing the GEnx jet engine for the Dreamliner and the redesigned Boeing 747-8 aircraft. Advances in composites research allowed designers to build the engine with just 18 composite fan blades, 4 fewer than the GE90. For the first time, the engine also had a carbon fiber composite fan case. Together, the design changes shaved hundreds of pounds off the engine and made the Boeing planes more fuel efficient. Above: A GEnx at a test stand in Peebles, Ohio.
In 2007, GE Aviation acquired a ceramic composites plant in Newark, Delaware. It used the plant as a “lean laboratory” for testing the mass production of CMCs. Few scientists in the world had more experience with the materials. In 2003, after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, scientists at the facility helped develop ceramic patches to repair the shuttle fleet in space. Photo credit: NASA
By 2009, GE engineers could run parts made from CMCs in the hot section of any jet engine. Above: The F414 engine on an assembly line.
The first Dreamliner powered by a GEnx jet engine entered commercial service in 2012. That year GE also started building in Ellisville, Miss., its second plant for manufacturing carbon fiber composites. The company also expanded production at CFAN, its original carbon composites factory, joint-venture built with France’s Snecma.
GE is manufacturing an entire engine, the LEAP (above), in a joint-venture with Snecma. The LEAP will be the first commercial engine with CMC parts. The first assembled LEAP is already powering through tests.
GE will also use ceramic parts and fourth-generation carbon fiber composites for the GE9X, the successor to the GE90. The engine will power Boeing’s next-generation 777X jet. The engine is still in development, but the company has already received 600 orders. The demand has pushed GE to open a second factory for CMCs in the U.S.
With 132 inches in fan diameter, the GE9X will be even larger than the GE90 (above, a paper model made by Luca Iaconi Stewart). It will also be 10 percent more fuel efficient and produce 30 percent fewer emissions than the older engine. The latest carbon composite technology also brings down the number of fan blades to just 16, that’s 6 fewer than the original GE90. That’s impressive, but GE researchers are far from finished.
The Dreamliner is growing up. A new, longer version of the plane powered by a pair of GEnx jet engines recently landed an FAA certification. In September, Boeing delivered the bigger jet to United Airlines, the first carrier to operate the plane in North America.
Starting next month, United will be flying the aircraft, which can carry 252 passengers, six times per week between Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia.
United says that the new Dreamliner, a Boeing 787-9, can fly for 8,300 miles - 450 miles farther than the previous 787-8 version. But it burns 20 percent less fuel and generates 20 percent fewer emissions per seat than similarly-sized aircraft. It is also quieter than the Boeing 767, which the plane was designed to replace.
A GEnx-1B engine. Top image: United’s new 787-9NR jet. Copyright © Boeing
There are two types of the GEnx engine: the GEnx-1B for the Dreamliner and GEnx-2B for Boeing 747-8 aircraft. They are the fastest selling engines in GE’s history.
GE has received 1,500 orders and commitments valued at $35 billion for the two types of the GEnx engine, with the majority still to be delivered. United, for example, ordered 65 Dreamliners with GEnx engines, but only 11 are in service so far. (The engines and services agreements contribute to GE’s record $246 billion backlog.)
The first version of the Dreamliner started flying two years ago. The third and longest version of the plane, the 787-10, is in development and scheduled for deliveries on 2018.
A Dreamliner powered by GEnx-1B engines already set a pair of world records in speed and distance flown by this class of aircraft. With the spring about to start Down Under, the new United flight could quickly become a hit.