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 picture of twins several weeks older.
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 an 8-week-old embryo 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.
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 captured from 4D ultrasound.
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.
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.
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.
You don’t need a microscope to see how science wove itself into the fabric of New York’s Fashion Week, which ended on Thursday. In fact, it seems that many designers may have gone to engineering school or at least took an internship at a lab. They’ve been influenced by everything from 3D printing and hydrophobic materials to protein structures and fracture mechanics.
GE asked a group of science bloggers to fan out across the city with their laptops and cameras and report back with what they found. Judging by the results, maybe scientists at GE Global Research have a fashion label in their future. Take a look.
Felipe Oliveira Baptista designed a nautical-inspired spring collection for Lacoste using waterproof fabrics (above and below). Waterproofs are made by coating natural and synthetic fibers with a polymers like PVC and rubber. The process can be tuned for breathability.
Besides developing their own breathable waterproof fabric, GE researchers are working on a more advanced version of these materials. Their superhydrophobic surfaces (below) find applications as coatings for aircraft wings and wind turbine blades.
Architecture and technology like robotics and 3-D printing inspired Chromat, Becca McCharen’s fashion label (below). She works with special software to optimize design and production, and uses lasers cutters and other technology to make her clothing. She designed pieces for artists like Beyonce and Madonna.
GE engineers are using similar software to design and 3-D print parts for next-generation jet engines like the LEAP an the GE9X (see below).
Jonathan Simkhai used angular patterns in his ready-to-wear Spring Summer 2015 collection (below). He was inspired by fragments of shattered glass. There’s an entire field of research called “fracture mechanics” that explores the propagation of cracks in materials.
This type of research includes testing the strength of advanced materials. In the image below, which was captured at GE Global Research, a glass jar shatters under 5,000 lbs. of force. Advanced materials, like the ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) that will serve inside GE jet engines, have to pass this test. While everyday objects shatter, these advanced materials are designed to take the hit.
Designer Andrea Jiapei Li created a number of structurally complex braided pieces (top image). Knots and folds occur naturally within the proteins of living organisms, but researchers are still trying to understand their function. (Last year, James Rothman, former chief scientists at GE Healthcare, won the Nobel Prize for his research involving proteins and cell biology.)
Going from small to large, theoretical physicists seeking an elegant theory that unifies all of the fundamental forces of physicsapply mathematical descriptions of twists and knots to spacetime. Jiapei Li said in an interview that she was interested primarily in architectural design. But judging by her collection, she may just mean the architectural design of the universe.
The intriguingly named Quant e-Sportlimousine has been making a splash in Europe, where it was just approved for road use. The electric vehicle can go from 0 to 62 miles per hour in a ridiculous 2.8 seconds, reach a projected top speed of 217 mph, and has a range of 370 miles for one charge, according to its manufacturer, Liechtenstein-based NanoFlowCell AG. Oh, and it’s powered by a saltwater-filled battery.
The vehicle has piqued the interest of GE scientists who are also at work on this so-called flow battery, which uses water-based liquids to store electric charge. “I’m keeping an eye on the NanoFuelCell development,” says Dr. Grigorii Soloveichik, a chemist who is developing the batteries at the GE labs. “Their flow battery car is impressive from the driving range point.”
Unlike traditional batteries, which use solid materials to store and release electricity, flow batteries use charged liquids kept in separate tanks. The charged liquids come into close proximity only during power generation, greatly reducing the possibility of fire. “The safety is much higher and the electrode materials degrade much less during service,” Soloveichik says. “You can re-use them many, many times.”
Soloveichik says flow batteries could hold “tens of kilowatt-hours and up” of energy, since it is the size of the tanks that determines how much power the batteries can store. Besides cars, flow batteries could be used as backup power for commercial and residential systems, store electricity from renewable sources of energy, and also support the power grid. “They can store energy from wind, for example, so power companies can use it when they need it,” Soloveichik says.
That could soon come handy. A year ago, California introduced the first energy storage mandate in the U.S., requiring utilities to buy 200 megawatt-hours of energy storage by 2014, and 1,325 megawatt-hours by 2020. The goals include improving grid reliability and capturing and storing more renewable energy.
Soloveichik recently published an article in the journal Natureon new flow battery research by a team from Harvard. He wrote that increasing the share of “intermittently available renewable energy sources” like wind and solar to more than 20 percent would require new “cheap and flexible storage systems.” Flow batteries could just do just the trick.
He said that presently, the options are either limited to very specific geographic locations (such as pumping water from a reservoir to an elevated level as a source of potential energy) or expensive solutions (for example, conventional batteries, flywheels and superconductive electromagnetic storage).
Over the last five years, GE researchers have been developing liquid fuels for flow batteries with energy density high enough to possibly power electric cars. The project is part of the DOE-funded Energy Frontier Research Center.
Soloveichik and his team are now working with the Department of Energy’s ARPA-e program to build a water-based battery that could power an electric vehicle for 240 miles.
He and his team have already shown that the ARAP-e target energy density and cost are within reach. They now have to get enough power from the battery chemistry. Says Soloveichik: “This is a game changing technology and we think we can exceed the goal.”
A few years ago, astronauts orbiting the Earth started seeing a strange patch of lights flickering in a formerly dark corner of North Dakota. The region is going through an oil boom and the lights, which are spread over an area larger than Minneapolis, are flares burning up natural gas from hundreds of new oil wells in the Bakken shale formation. The Wall Street Journal reported that in April alone, the state’s wells burned off 10.3 billion standard cubic feet of natural gas worth almost $50 million on the spot market.
The plains of North Dakota at night. Image credit: NASA
Nobody likes to see money go up in flames. But the existing pipelines that take the gas from wellheads to processing plants are at capacity, forcing energy companies to burn off as much as 30 percent of their natural gas production.
That’s why earlier this year, Statoil, the Norwegian energy company, started working with GE and the energy transportation, operations and logistics company Ferus Natural Gas (Ferus NGF) to capture natural gas coming up from oil wells, compress it and use it as fuel for powering oil field equipment instead of more expensive diesel fuel.
Statoil’s pilot project on in the Bakken is already capturing thousands of standard cubic feet of gas per day, and the energy company now plans to expand it to as many as three systems by the end of the year.
“It’s a win-win proposition across the board,” says Russell Rankin, regional manager for Statoil, which operates hundreds of wells in the Bakken. “We’ll be able to cut flaring, reduce emissions and capture the revenue stream.”
Statoil is using captured flare gas to power one of its rigs in the Bakken. Compressed natural gas travels from a white Ferus truck in the background through a red hose to a pressure reduction unit (front right). The unit lowers the pressure of the gas so that it can be used to power oil field equipment. Image credit: Jay Pickthorn, AP, Statoil
The natural gas comes out of the ground as bubbles diffused in oil, kind of like a carbonated drink. One barrel of oil in the Bakken contains about 1,000 standard cubic feet of gas, enough to heat a family home for more than four days.
Statoil runs the oil and gas coming out of the wells through separators that remove the gas. Since separated gas is still “wet” and full of valuable natural gas liquids like propane, butane and natural gasoline, crews send it through other pieces of equipment like the Joule-Thomson skid that take the liquids out for sale to customers.
In the past, teams would flare the gas that was left. But the pilot Statoil installation sends this “dry gas” to a mobile compressor designed by GE, which compresses the remaining dry gas from 50 to 2,900 pounds per square inch. The highly-pressurized gas then travels inside Ferus’ tube trailers pulled by heavy duty trucks. They deliver the gas as fuel to rigs and equipment often many miles away.
GE and Ferus NGF call the system “Last Mile Fueling Solution" because it takes the gas the final distance, or the last mile, from the point of supply at the wellhead to the point of use without the need of pipes on the ground. It combines GE’s CNG in a Box technology with Ferus’s oil field logistics..
In addition to powering rigs and truck fleets, Statoil may also start using it to power electric generators and other oil field equipment. “We could eliminate about 40 to 50 percent of our diesel use with this technology,” Rankin says.
Rankin estimates that the expansion will allow Statoil to capture between 3 and 5 million standard cubic feet of gas per day by the end of the year, and reduce emissions between 120,000 and 200,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases per year.
Statoil’s Russell Rankin. Image credit: Jay Pickthorn, AP, Statoil
“The ultimate goal is to reduce flaring as much as possible and capture the gas in our wells,” Rankin says. “We have been working to capture as much as gas as possible for a while now. With new regulations, there’s no other way around it. We need some solutions to capture gas now, when there is a lack of pipeline capacity. But this system can also be very useful in remote areas with no pipeline access.”
GE and Ferus NGF say that they are in discussions with other energy companies working in the Bakken formation to help them stay in compliance with new flaring regulations and ease their conversion from diesel to natural gas fuel.
Observers from space might be the first to know when Last Mile takes off. Nobody will mistake the plains of North Dakota for Las Vegas at night again.
Getting shale gas out of the ground is one thing. But taking it to customers is quite another.
American pipeline operators are investing as much as $40 billion every year to maintain, modernize and expand their networks. The shale gas boom is putting operators under pressure to move more gas to market faster and more safely, and many U.S. pipelines have been in service for at least two decades.
“We need an agile and comprehensive pipeline solution that could be delivered quickly and allows for a more real-time view of pipeline integrity across our interstate natural gas pipelines,” says Shawn Patterson, president of operations and project delivery at Columbia Pipeline Group.
Columbia runs a 15,000-mile gas pipeline network linking the Gulf Coast to the mid-Atlantic region and the Northeast. It will soon start using GE software and big data to monitor its network in almost real time, and streamline its operations and planning.
The world’s pipelines stretch for some 2 million miles, enough to wrap themselves 80 times around the equator. GE estimates every 150,000 miles of pipeline generates an amount of data equal the entire printed collection of the Library of Congress, or 10 terabytes.
Brian Palmer, chief executive of GE’s Measurement & Control unit, says that the new system will help customers like Columbia make the right decisions at the right time to keep their assets safe. It will help them send repair machinery and crews where they are needed most, and speed up response time to problems.
The system is designed to harvest data from sensors installed along the pipes and equipment, sync it with external data sources and deliver to customers detailed analytics and risk assessment from key points of the network. “The goal is to help pipeline operators make proactive, rather than reactive decisions,” Palmer says.
The “Intelligent Pipeline Solution” is the first commercial product GE and Accenture have offered up since they formed their software and big data partnership in 2013. The companies expect the system to be operational in the first half on 2015.
GE will sell its Appliances business to Sweden’s Electrolux in a strategic move that boosts the focus on the company’s core industrial units. The $3.3 billion, all-cash deal follows GE’s recent bid to acquire the power and grid businesses of the French industrial giant Alstom.
Jeff Immelt, GE chairman and CEO said that the transaction would advance GE’s strategy to be “the world’s best infrastructure and technology company.” He said that GE was building “a new type of industrial company, one with a balanced, competitively positioned portfolio of infrastructure businesses with strong advantages in technology, growth markets and a culture of simplification.”
GE has entered into a long-term agreement with Electrolux that will allow the century-old Swedish consumer goods company to keep using the GE Appliances brand.
The GE and Electrolux boards of directors already approved the deal. It remains subject to customary closing conditions and regulatory approvals. It’s planned to close in 2015.
GE’s long-term strategy has focused on building up the company’s industrial units, shrinking its financial services and growing investment in new technologies.
Besides the Alstom bid, which got the green light from the boards of both companies in June, GE launched the IPO of Synchrony Financial, its North American retail finance business, as part of its staged exit from that business. The moves represent GE’s longer-term redeployment of capital from non-core assets like media, plastics and insurance to higher-growth, higher-margin businesses in energy, power generation, aviation and healthcare.
GE is also spending 5 percent of revenues on R&D. The investment has yielded advanced technologies like Tier 4 locomotives, gas turbines, new materials and next-generation jet engines like the GEnx (top image). It also added to the company’s record $246 billion backlog in the second quarter, up $23 billion from a year ago.
GE is using these steps to achieve its goal of getting 75 percent of earnings from its industrial businesses by 2016.
“We are proud of the role [GE Appliances] has played in GE’s history,” Immelt said. “We have greatly strengthened this franchise in the past few years. GE Appliances’ people, valuable home appliances brand, products, distribution, and service capabilities make it a perfect fit with Electrolux.”
In 2013, the global consulting firm Interbrand ranked GE as the sixth most recognized brand in the world and valued it at almost $47 billion, up nearly 10 percent over three years. The firm recognized GE for investing $1.5 billion in the Industrial Internet . “Building capabilities in predictive software products, Big Data and analytics, and advanced manufacturing, the GE brand is stretching into new territories,” Interbrand wrote.
Clearly, this is a different brand than the GE of the past century. GE executives are saying that the company’s future brand value will be driven almost entirely by technology and industrial products. Units like the Appliances business, which GE just agreed to sell to Sweden’s Electrolux, already contribute only a small share to the company’s brand.
Distributed Power, for example, which GE launched earlier this year, is helping electrify rapidly developing countries in Asia and Africa and transform the energy landscape by developing localized power generation and distribution systems. The quickly growing unit is already earning three times more money than GE’s entire Appliances unit.
The focus on technology, the Industrial Internet and “brilliant machines” represents return to GE’s industrial roots, but one on a global scale. It started out as an U.S. industrial company manufacturing everything from electric elevators, street cars,and power plants capable of producing power for entire neighborhoods to engine superchargers for the nascent aviation industry. It even electrified the Panama Canal, when it first opened for traffic in 1914.
GE’s industrial roots reach back more than a century. Top image: The Industrial Internet has applications across many industries and types of hardware, from jet engines and locomotives to medical scanners.
GE’s century old Appliances business evolved in tandem with the spread of electricity and the electrical grid that GE pioneered. For many decades, GE was making both big dynamos for power plants as well as little motors for dishwashers and washing machines.
With growing global demand for power, clean water and energy, however, GE is quickly becoming a pure-play infrastructure and technology company with a financial arm focusing on financing big industrial projects.
Jeff Immelt, GE chairman and CEO, says that GE is building a balanced and competitive portfolio of infrastructure businesses with strong advantages in technology and growth markets. They are infused with an entrepreneurial mindset “driven by a culture of simplification.” Says Immelt: “We’re creating a new type of industrial company.”
The Pilbara region of Western Australia is home to some of the world’s largest iron ore mines. But the area is also a remote and forbidding place where temperatures often climb to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why mines like Rio Tinto’s Yandicoogina are using next-generation technology like remotely operated trucks the size of a house to take the ore out of the pit around the clock. They dump the rocks into rail cars pulled by customized GE locomotives that haul the cargo across the Mars-like landscape to port.
These GE Evolution Series locomotives, which are made in the U.S., come with special cooling systems to cope with the heat. They often pull a train of cars that weighs upwards of 26,000 tons and stretches 1.4 miles.
GE spent a decade and about $400 million to develop the locomotives. Each uses more than six miles of wiring and 250 sensors generating 9 million data points every hour to run as efficiently as possible. As a result, they use less fuel and produce 40 percent fewer emissions than their closest counterparts. They need just one gallon of diesel to pull a ton of freight 450 miles.
There are 178 GE locomotives running along Rio Tinto’s 900-mile long rail network, connecting the company’s 15 mines in the Pilbara to port.
It’s worth noting that the region is not entirely barren. Rio Tio estimates that the trains pass an average of 500 kangaroos per trip.
The spot features a small boy who can’t speak but whose voice box produces beeps that allow him to talk to toys, the electrical grid, aircraft and many other machines. “Lots of companies have been trying to tell their Industrial Internet story and we had to take a different approach to make it stand out,” says Peter McCallum, senior director at BBDO, the creative agency that made the ad. “We wanted to tell an industrial-scale story at a human level to elicit emotion and ensure that it resonated with far-reaching audiences.”
The story follows the boy from birth, when his primal “beep” causes considerable distress to his parents. But by the time he is in elementary school, his special power allows him to switch the TV to the football game for dad (the ad will air for the first time during the NFL kickoff), restore electricity to an entire town and make planes fly on time. “We liked the idea that it’s his natural language,” McCallum says. “He does not have to put on a cape to have these powers. It’s sort of a metaphor for GE.”
Unlike the boy, the Industrial Internet is real. It could soon link billions of machines and devices ranging from smartphones and thermostats to jet engines and medical scanners.
GE believes the network could add $10 and $15 trillion – the size of today’s U.S. economy - to global GDP over the next 20 years. The company’s software arm has developed a software platform called Predix that allows railroads, oil drilling companies, wind farms, hospitals and other customers to perform prognostics on machines, reduce downtime and increase efficiency.
The “Boy Who Beeps” is the first in a series of stories and other content that GE plans to roll out through the rest of the year to illustrate the power of the Industrial Internet.
In the late 19th Century, Thomas Edison baked cotton threads and shredded bamboo to create some of the earliest commercial pure carbon fiber for use as the first glowing filaments in light bulbs. Industrial engineers are no longer baking bamboo, but carbon fiber is still a subject of fascination as a super material.
GE is utilizing a next-generation carbon fiber composite for the fan blades that will debut in the GE9X engine, which will drive Boeing’s upcoming 777X passenger aircraft. The composite material is letting engineers build the GE9X with thinner and fewer blades, which will contribute to 5 percent less fuel being burned compared with all other similar engines when the 9X is ready in 2020.
“The GE9X team is combining the lessons learned from those fielded blades with the next generation of material and aero technologies to push the envelope and maintain our competitive edge,” says Tod Davis, the GE9X composite fan blade design leader.
“The carbon fiber composite material has also advanced during the past 10 years,” says Davis. “The advancements allow us to design a thinner blade, which is just as strong as our current composite fan blades. Fewer, thinner blades will enhance the airflow and make for a lighter, more efficient fan that will help with the GE9X engine’s overall performance and fuel burn.”
A rendering of the GE9X fan. Top image: This GIF shows the testing of an earlier generation of composite fan blades with large ice balls.
Davis says carbon fiber composites have always needed to be thicker than metal, though they were also lighter and more durable. The fourth generation of composite material has a stiffer fiber, which means the blades can be crafted at thicknesses much closer to metal versions. The blades’ leading edges, formerly made of titanium, will now be made of a new steel alloy to enhance the component’s strength.
Davis and a team of engineers followed a process that Edison would recognize in whittling down the candidates for the new carbon fiber. “We thoroughly tested the material at various levels from coupon testing of static, fatigue, and fracture toughness properties to component testing of fatigue and ultimate strength capability,” he says. These test results have allowed them to select the best material for the GE9X engine. he says.
More than 700 GE9X engines have been ordered so far because of the fuel savings inherent in the composite fan blades and other advanced materials, like the tough ceramic matrix composite material that will withstand extreme temperatures in the engine’s combustor and turbine. The weight savings from all of these advances mean the GE9X fan will be lighter than its predecessor, the GE90, while also being the largest fan produced by the company. The composite fan case at the front of the engine will measure 133 inches in diameter, about the length of a compact car.
Airlines including Emirates, Etihad Airways, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, and Qatar Airways have placed orders for the 777X with GE9X powerplants, which will deliver more than 100,000 pounds of thrust. Engineers are continuing to refine the machine’s design to optimize its aerodynamics before the design is frozen in late 2015. Flight testing is expected to begin in 2017.
One sunny Thursday afternoon last October, Lyman Connor climbed on his bicycle and pedaled from his Roanoke, Va., home for a ride along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. He didn’t make it back that day.
Riding down one of the parkway’s steep hills at nearly 40 mph, a car suddenly braked in front of Connor. “The last thing I remember was going over the handlebars,” he says. “When I woke up in an intensive care unit, I had tubes coming out my body to sustain my breathing.”
Connor suffered nine skull fractures in the fall and broke his hip, jaw, clavicle and a number of ribs, one of which punctured a lung. He also lost sight in one of his eyes and his sense of taste.
After spending a week convalescing in the hospital, the 54-year-old Connor decided to go home. He was still badly hurting and in a cast when he stepped into the hospital elevator. Inside was a boy whose eyes were red from crying. “I tried to make him smile, pointed to myself, and told him it couldn’t be so bad,” Connor says.
But the boy lifted his arm and showed Connor a stump where his hand should have been.
“He said that at least I had both hands,” Connor recalls. “I didn’t know how to respond.”
Lyman Connor is holding his bionic hand.
Connor gathered from the conversation that the boy’s family could not afford to buy him an electronic prosthetic hand, which can cost as much as $75,000. So he decided to build one for the boy. “There are moments in life that give you a chance to change directions,” Connor says. “This was one of them.”
Connor, a GE engineer who writes software for turbines and power plants, has always been a tinkerer. Among the tools in his garage is a 3D printer, which he decided to use to build a low-cost bionic hand. “I didn’t want the boy to be denied a hand because his family didn’t have the money,” he says.
He searched the Internet and found a page for Robohand, an open-source project that is developing 3D-printed limbs in South Africa. This group’s work gave him the initial blueprints for printing fingers. Then he learned about wrist design and the circuits that go inside bionic hands from the Michigan Institute for Electronic Limb Development. He also talked to prosthetists and patients at a local V.A. hospital.
High-end electronic limbs use sensors that detect electric signals generated by muscles in the stump to control the prosthesis. But Connor was surprised to learn that some people who had lost a hand would be willing to control their prosthesis with their healthy hand. “One man told me to build him a smartphone app,” he says. “So that’s exactly what I did.”
Connor invested about $10,000 of his own money in the project and was loath to spend another $4,000 on getting a programmer to develop the app. So he taught himself how to code on his own. “You don’t need to be a genius to do this, just resourceful” he says.
Connor’s quest also took him to the heart of the maker movement, a diverse group of tinkerers, hobbyists and DIY entrepreneurs. One such community is called TinyCircuits, which makes open-source miniature computer boards in Akron, Ohio. Tiny Circuits designed for Connor with his input, a miniature singleboard solution based on its TinyDuino, a quarter-sized board based on the Arduino microcontroller, to manipulate the hand with his app over a Bluetooth connection. A Roanoke machine shop then built him metal joints and other parts needed for the hand.
An early version of the bionic hand’s electronics were built around an Arduino board.
The bionic hand is now almost ready. Its mechanical and electronic parts are all done. All that remains is to make the prosthesis’s plastic skin, a job made more difficult since Connor’s 3D printer broke. “I take it one step at a time,” he says. “I’ll sell a couple of my bikes and buy a nice high-resolution FormLabs printer that got recently funded on Kickstarter.”
Connor’s finished hand will come as a kit and should cost around $4,000. Its parts can be replaced when they break. “I wanted to build an affordable device that could be manufactured anywhere,” he says. “There are a lot of people around the world who need this.”
Connor returned to his job at GE in January after recuperating from his accident nine months ahead of schedule. He regained his sight and sense of smell albeit he has shed 35 pounds since being injured, weight loss he attributes to the loss of his sense of taste. “Everything used to taste like oatmeal to me,” he says. “My friends come here and say, ‘Man, you are dying.’ But actually this project gave new meaning to my life.”
He continues: “I never wanted any accolades. This is no feel good story and I am not doing it for money. I want people to dig inside and see what they can do for others.”
Connor still has one last big item on his to-do list. He never took down the name and the address of the boy in the elevator. “I hope that this story will help me find him,” he says. “I’ve got his new hand in my workshop. It’s almost ready.”
In the not-too-distant future, airplanes will scythe into the wind with an airframe that can virtually streamline its shape using nothing but air. In pursuit of this goal, researchers at NASA and Boeing moved an old 757 vertical tail to the world’s largest wind tunnel at NASA Ames Research Center in California to test technology called active flow control, which uses tiny air jets to reduce friction and turbulence across flight surfaces.
The idea is definitely in the air. Last week, Austrian mathematician Martin Hairer received a Fields Medal, considered to be math’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for his study of the flow of air around aircraft wings.
The NASA and Boeing teams outfitted the tail with a technology called sweeping jet actuators, which are devices with no moving parts that move pressurized air across the tail. The actuators can help smooth, or “reattach” air flow over flight surfaces, which otherwise separates at high angles. Flow separation is similar to what happens to a fast moving river as it flows around rocks – the water becomes turbulent and forms swirling eddies.
Once refined, the technology could allow aircraft designers to make smaller and lighter tails that produce less drag, which could translate into more efficient flight, lower fuel burn and save airlines millions of dollars. Boeing plans to conduct flight tests in 2015.
Scientists at GE’s Global Research Center have separately been studying active flow control for aviation and to improve wind turbines’ ability to convert wind into electricity. The GE scientists are using a technology called synthetic jet actuators, or SJAs, which have no moving parts but use tiny amounts of energy to breathe in and pump air jets through small holes along a wing or blade’s surface. SJAs speed up air that naturally slows as it flows over the surface due to friction.
GE researchers are studying devices that use small amounts of energy to move air and potentially improve airflow over surfaces.
“By expanding and contracting a chamber such that air is sucked in and ejected through a single hole, this device works similar to a human lung,” says Seyed Saddoughi, principal engineer in Aero-Thermal & Mechanical Systems, who is leading the actuator’s development. “The advantage is that there is no need for pumps that use external flow, or fans with moving parts. The device is lightweight and very simple in operation, with minimal power usage.”
The actuators pump air efficiently by applying an alternating current to two parallel plates separated by a slight space. Employing a phenomenon called the piezoelectric effect, the two plates bend and straighten as electricity moves through them, causing the middle chamber to rapidly pull in and push out air. GE has also licensed the technology to cool consumer electronics and computers, where it will replace bulkier fans that need more energy and space.
Saddoughi in his lab with a synthetic jet actuator.
Saddoughi’s research team has also been experimenting on another version of the technology that can operate in water. Their experiments have shown that pumping high-powered water jets against the surface of boat hulls can change hydrodynamic flow and decrease drag.
“Synthetic jet actuators give us active control of flow over these surfaces,” he says. “We can manipulate flow intelligently to gain better performance from our machines.”
Top gif: NASA tested a full-sized tail from a 757 commercial aircraft that was modified and equipped with tiny jets called sweeping jet actuators to blow air across the rudder surfaces. Courtesy NASA/Ames Research Center
Noun (musical): A switch in the rhythm or bass line following a long crescendo. A musical climax.
The industrial world buzzes, whirs, thrums and beeps – sometimes audibly, at other times just out of the range of human hearing. For most of us, these noises are the background track of the modern world, but for DJ and musician Matthew Dear, there’s music in the science.
Dear recently collaborated with scientists at GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna to gather 1,000 samples from some of the world’s most powerful machines. “There’s music in everything,” Dear said. “Whether it be nature and birds or man-made sound.” Armed with an hour of source material from machines around the world, Dear disappeared into his home studio and emerged with a three-minute sonic odyssey called “Drop Science.”
Dear worked with GE Acoustics Engineer Andrew Gorton, one of several researchers at GE labs around the world who listen to machines and try to divine what they’re saying. Acoustics can tell you in advance that there’s a problem, Gorton explains, long before the problem is visible. For DJs and industrial equipment alike, a missed beat or an off-key note can mean failure.
For those who know their music history, “Drop Science” is a play on “Droppin’ Science”, a classic early hip-hop track by Marley Marl. The term itself means to say something unique, which is apropos for industrial machinery. “An acoustic signature from a piece of equipment is like a fingerprint from a human. No two sounds are the same,” says GE Measurement and Control’s Fabian Dawson.
Acoustics can tell engineers when equipment, especially in hard-to-reach places like deep-sea oil wells, is working properly. For example, GE’s Subsea Condition Monitoring System, a device that resembles an oversized birdcage, uses crystals that respond to sounds in a 1,600-foot radius. The cage is already at work in some 130 sites in the North Sea, determining the health of undersea pumps, motors and cables and transmitting the data through the Industrial Internet.
For his drop, Dear used sounds from MRI scan sequences, acceleration tests of GEnx engines and sound files from equipment that measures light over fiber optic cables. The sounds build around a beat before crescendoing just after the two-minute mark.
For remixers, the bundle of sounds, videos, photos and cover art is available on BitTorrent, and the track will be available to subscribers to Dear’s label, Ghostly, on Drip.fm. The Djay 2 app will also feature an integrated sound pack with audio recorded at GE facilities that users can access to remix “Drop Science” or any other track so the science can continue to drop.