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.
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.
In emergency medicine, the “golden hour” is the time immediately following a trauma when intervention is most likely to save a life. Ultrasound researcher Jason Castle has experienced these critical moments first hand in his other role as a volunteer EMT in upstate New York. When he responds to emergencies, he often loses precious time trying to decode symptoms. “You try to understand the patient’s medical history, monitor the vitals and if you suspect a cardiovascular emergency, you take him to the hospital for tests,” say Castle, who works at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, NY..
Now, Castle is using his research skills to help speed treatment through “microbubbles,” tiny gas-filled spheres that can flow through the bloodstream, reflect sound waves and help define otherwise grainy ultrasound pictures. “Anywhere blood flows, these microbubbles can travel,” he says. “If you are in a car accident and have internal bleeding, we could tell right away, identify what organs have been injured and where the blood is pooling. These tests could be started as soon as the ambulance shows up, rather than waiting for arrival at the hospital.”
Top image: “When you inject these microbubbles, it’s like turning on the light inside the heart,” says GE biologist Jason Castle (above).
The new ultrasound technology could ride inside the ambulance and help medical staff diagnose patients on the spot, potentially saving lives. EMTs could deliver microbubbles in the vein through an ordinary IV injection. The bubbles dissolve minutes after the test and the gas leave the body in the breath. “When you inject these microbubbles, it’s like turning on the light inside the heart,” he says.
The biggest potential upside of microbubbles, however, is as a vehicle for delivering therapies. Castle and a team of GE scientists are experimenting with using microbubbles to ferry drugs, antibodies and even DNA payload to tumors, clogged arteries, and whole organs like the liver (see image below).
When they reach the target, doctors could change the acoustic setting of the ultrasound and burst the bubbles with sound waves. “You disrupt the bubble and deposit the drug where the body needs it most,” Castle says. “With great precision, you could deliver a full dose of chemotherapy to the tumor, right where it’s needed, reducing side effects. It could have a huge potential for the quality of life of cancer patients.” In fact, a recently published study from Norway reported that microbubbles have been used in patients with pancreatic cancer.
Castle hopes that in the near future doctors could use microbubbles to image a patient’s heart and deliver anticlotting drugs at the same time. “Becoming an EMT as well as a biologist working to improve ultrasound gives you a chance to really see both fields,” he says. “As an EMT you see the current standards of care, how things are done, and how they could be done better.”
Nearing the end of a three-month pregnancy, Fifi the northern death adder has just weeks to go before she gives birth to the 12 little lethal babies inside her. The image is not an ophidiophobe’s nightmare, but a veterinarian’s worry.
Most snakes hatch from eggs, but death adders give birth to a litter of live offspring. That’s why Fifi was the first snake at Australia’s Featherdale Wildlife Park to undergo an ultrasound. “Pregnant snakes become noticeably swollen around the middle of the body,” says Chad Staples, senior curator at Featherdale, where Fifi lives. “As they get closer to the due date, they lie on their backs to keep their tummy warm, and stay very still to conserve their energy for the birth. Right now she’s not moving very much. She looks pretty over it.”
Staples has been monitoring Fifi throughout her pregnancy and will collect her blind, two-inch-long babies when they are born to move them into their own enclosures. The tiny creatures will grow up to be some of the most venomous snakes in the world and measure up to 1 meter in length. Their poison contains a neurotoxin that can paralyze breathing and cause death. They can reportedly also deliver the fastest strike among all venomous snakes in Australia. But the reptiles neither eat nor drink until the first time they shed their skin.
Humans are stepping in to help the snakes like Fifi and her brood survive in a tough world.
“There’s not all that much maternal care involved in being a mommy snake. She’ll just head off on her own and we’ll collect up the babies to keep them warm,” says Staples. “In captivity, it’s not unusual to get 100 percent survival of a litter of snakes. In the wild, the survival rates are much lower.”
Fifi is part of a program aimed at understanding more about reptiles’ breeding cycles at Featherdale, where she went through an ultrasound exam last November. Staples and other park staff have used ultrasound to follow her health since before the baby snakes were conceived.
Quit Wriggling:Fifi’s ultrasound.
Fiona Mildren, an imaging and ultrasound manager at GE Healthcare Systems, has been on hand to help administer the technology even though she an ophidiophobe – afraid of snakes – herself. “It was really interesting to see that snake ovaries look a lot like human ovaries in an ultrasound,” Mildren says. “In fact, sometimes while I was doing the ultrasound I’d even forget that she was a snake – until she wriggled, that is.”
Fifi was caged with a male death adder over the hottest part of summer, and Mildren was delighted to see the tiny flicker of baby-snake heartbeats when she got scanned a few months later.
“We’re amazed by how much we can see thanks to this ultrasound technology,” Staples says. “This is the first time we’ve been able to know with 100 percent certainty that a snake is pregnant, and that has given us the opportunity to prepare for the birth well in advance.”
Is the Voyager 1 spacecraft in interstellar space? NASA says yes, but a small but respected community of researchers isn’t convinced.
A quick review of the facts: Last year, NASA scientists penned a research paper that concluded the spacecraft, traveling at 38,000 mph, became the first man-made object to leave the solar system sometime around August 25, 2012.
The article’s authors, who based their announcement on a number of advanced models, stated “after long disagreements, that is now the consensus view of Voyager mission team leaders.”
One contrary model put forward recently in the journal Geophysical Research Letters argues that a phenomenon in which our sun’s wind gets compressed at the solar system’s end could mislead scientists looking at the data. If this model is correct, Voyager has yet to cross out of the region of the sun’s influence, called the heliosphere (the solar system is defined as a much larger area that extends beyond an icy belt called Oort Cloud, which is 50,000 times further from the sun than Earth).
"It is the nature of the scientific process that alternative theories are developed in order to account for new observations,” says Ed Stone, NASA’s lead Voyager project scientist. “This paper differs from other models of the solar wind and the heliosphere and is among the new models that the Voyager team will be studying as more data are acquired by Voyager."
Voyager launched on Sept. 5, 1977 for a mission to the gas giants.
One element of the Voyager mission isn’t under debate, though: the 35-year old spacecraft is still relying on GE technology, including command computers and power generators.
The spacecraft is now than 11.9 billion miles from home—more than 53,000 times farther than a trip to the moon. The Voyager 1 and its sibling the Voyager 2 launched in 1977. They were expected to last only a few years, but carried . “NASA considered everything past the Saturn encounter a bonus,” said Dr. Howard Butler, who ran GE’s Aerospace Electronic Systems Department.
Voyager’s gold record, “The Sights and Sounds of Earth.”
GE engineers designed the Voyagers’ command computers directing the flight path and providing communication links with NASA Mission Control, as well as the probes’ power source called radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). These devices still remain in service and convert the heat produced from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium into electricity for the spacecraft’s instruments, computers, radio and other systems.
Scientists have been speculating for several years about the exact timing spacecraft’s departure from the heliosphere, the limit of the particles thrown off by the sun. Last October, GE’s science and technology publication Txchnologist noted that since September 2012, the craft’s instruments have sensed a major, sustained drop in the low-energy charged particles released by the sun that reach it. The prediction was about five days off: the exact date of departure was Aug. 25, 2012.
Top image: The original paths of Voyager 1 and 2. All GIFs Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Earlier this year, engineer Taylor Dawson visited his brother in Arizona after a business trip. Dawson, a GE Appliances product manager, had just signed on with FirstBuild, GE’s collaboration with open-source innovator Local Motors that aims to create innovative new refrigerators and other appliances and bring them to market quickly. His brother had never heard of it, but said, “I’ve got to show you something.”
Dawson’s brother took him to the refrigerator, which has an industrial power supply on top. Two wires ran from the power source inside the fridge and into a little heater in the dairy bin.
“He says, ‘This is my butter conditioner. It keeps my butter at the perfect temperature for spreading,’” Dawson recalled. “He took the butter out and he spread some for me just to show me how perfect it was.”
That episode convinced Dawson that people were ready to be adventurous with their appliances. Now, just months after FirstBuild launched with a microfactory in Louisville and an online community that can share and build digitally, the collaboration has already rolled out its first product, the Smart Pitcher. The pitcher solves a small but annoying problem that bedevils households across America: how do you keep your water pitcher filled and your water cold.
The pitcher is equipped with two magnets, Dawson explained. The first tells a magnetic switch in the fridge whether the pitcher is there. When the switch closes, the fridge begins to fill the pitcher with water until a second, floating, magnet reaches the top and closes a second switch, which stops the water.
Perhaps even more impressive than the Smart Pitcher was how the FirstBuild team reduced the product cycle from years to a matter of months. A typical cycle involves a “concepting period” lasting between one and two years, where business leaders talk about market opportunities and needs. If management buys in, the team builds a prototype that proves the design, then builds multiple versions of it to solve engineering problems, and finally sends the device out for field tests. It makes for great products, Dawson said, but it’s difficult to change course once you’re a few years in. “We wanted to do something for the least amount of money in the least amount of time,” Dawson said.
With the Smart Pitcher, the team simplified the development by purchasing a pitcher off the shelf, instead of creating a new one. Then they used consumer-grade 3D printers to speed up prototyping. Finally, they saved time by opting for finishes that could be accommodated on a drastically shortened schedule on the theory that the maker community, which is pitching in ideas on how to improve the pitcher, would embrace finishes and parts made through rapid manufacturing techniques. “A lot of the rigor that [ordinarily] goes into those processes is making sure that every single spec is adhered to the Nth degree,” Dawson said. “Our community embraces the aesthetics of parts made through rapid prototyping.”
Another bonus: the team won’t have to put the pitcher in refrigerators. Makers can install it themselves in GE’s GTH18GC, an 18-cubic-foot model that’s already in millions of homes.
Next up for FirstBuild: a USB hub for refrigerators that will allow people to create hacks like Dawson’s brother, without using an industrial power supply. The Smart Pitcher will be available in early October.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, no definitive test and no way to prevent it. Yet when asked, an overwhelming number of people around the world say they want to know whether they are at risk. “I was surprised by the consistency and strength of that need,” says Ben Newton, who leads the neurology unit at GE Healthcare Life Sciences. “This strength of feeling is rare for a disease that we cannot treat.”
Newton is talking about the results of a new survey that gauged global attitudes about knowing that we might be prone dementia. The survey found that on average, three out of four people wanted to know if they were going to develop an incurable neurological illness. Even more respondents – 81 percent - wanted to know if someone in their family was at risk.
An overwhelming 94 percent of the surveyed sample said that dementia diagnosis should be covered by government or health insurance, but slightly more than half also said that they would be prepared to pay for diagnosis themselves.
Scientists at GE Global Research are developing magnetic resonance methods to image the brain’s white matter tissue and study the organ’s structural connectivity. Find out more here.
The results also found that despite the lack of cure, people wanted to know whether they were at risk to organize their affairs and plan the rest of their lives. (You can find the full results here.)
“What these statistics tell us is just how strongly people feel about tackling neurological disorders,” says Marc Wortmann, executive director of Alzheimer’s Disease International. “Governments and healthcare systems need to ensure ready access to the diagnostic tools already available to accurately diagnose disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, so that people can manage the symptoms as early as possible.”
The survey, which was commissioned by GE Healthcare, polled 10,000 people from ten countries including the U.S., China, South Korea, Brazil, Russia, India and the UK.
Researchers and scientists at GE are developing imaging machines and tools to improve dementia diagnostics. Newton says that the company backed the survey to better understand whether people found it valuable to be diagnosed in the absence of therapy. “The results fundamentally underscore the human need for the technology that GE is developing,” he says.
There are an estimated 44 million people living with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the two most common forms of dementia. This number will likely rise to 75 million by 2030, placing healthcare systems under tremendous stress.
Today, most dementia diagnoses are made when the disease is already advanced and patients have few options left. Beyond palliative care, there is little that can be done to slow its progression once it has taken hold. However, earlier diagnosis can help allow people to slow down the disease and make better decisions about the future.
Engineers at the Italian aerospace company Avio have developed a breakthrough process for 3D printing light-weight metal blades for jet engine turbines.
The method builds the blades from a titanium powder fused with a beam of electrons accelerated by a 3-kilowatt electron gun.
The gun is 10 times more powerful than laser beams currently used for printing metal parts. This boost in power allows Avio, which is part of GE Aviation, to build blades from layers of powder that are more than four times thicker than those used by laser-powered 3D printers.
As a result, one machine can produce eight stage 7 blades for the low pressure turbine that goes inside the GEnx jet engine in just 72 hours. “This is very competitive with casting, which is how we used to make them,” says Mauro Varetti, advanced manufacturing engineer at Avio.
The machine is using an electron beam to melt the powder (yellow) and build the part from a 3D digital blueprint.
Avio developed the technology, called electron beam melting or EBM, together with Sweden’s Arcam. The idea was to improve the manufacturing of parts made from an advanced aerospace material called titanium aluminide (TiAl). The material is 50 percent lighter than the nickel-based alloys typically used for low pressure turbine blades.
Blades made from the material can reduce the weight of the entire low pressure turbine by 20 percent. “Although the material is expensive, the weight savings and the fuel consumption savings tied to weight reduction more than pay for it,” Varetti says.
But titanium aluminide is also notoriously hard to work with. Companies normally use lost-wax casting or spin casting to make TiAl parts. However, the material has a very high contraction ratio and can become fragile and prone to cracks as it cools. The EBM printer solves these problems.
Avio 3D-printed LPT blades for the LEAP, GEnx, GE90 and GE9X jet engines.
The printer builds parts directly from a 3D computer drawing by melting layers of fine powder with an electron beam. The technology allows workers to preheat the powder and better control the part’s properties.
Engineers can also change the shape of the blades and print different blades on the same machine in a quick succession, which would be laborious and expensive with casting.
Later this year, GE will start testing blades printed for the GEnx engine at its test facility in Peebles, Ohio. (GE designed the GEnx for Boeing’s Dreamliner and 747-8 aircraft.) The parts will also go inside the GE9X, a new jet engine GE is developing for Boeing’s next-generation long-haul plane, the 777X.
EBM machines are now working inside Avio’s new 20,000-foot plant near Turin, Italy. The factory, which is dedicated to additive manufacturing, opened last August.
GE also started building a new factory for making 3D-printed jet engine fuel nozzles in Alabama. Gregg Morris, who runs additive manufacturing programs at GE Aviation, says he can think of dozens of jet engine parts that could be 3D-printed. “The sky is the limit,” he says.
Crews at GE Aviation’s jet engine boot camp in Peebles, Ohio, feed some 800 gallons of water every minute into the maw of a GEnx engine during a water ingestion test. The test is just one of many trials jet engines must endure to win an FAA certification.
They also get hit by baseball-size hail and suffer from all kinds of extreme weather and abusive flight conditions they’ll likely never encounter in service. Take a look:
The water ingestion test blasts 800 gallons of water per minute inside a GEnx engine running at full thrust.
Engines must also power through icy spray. The GEnx engine below is facing tons of water and ice in minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit at a testing facility in Winnipeg, Canada.
The crew at Peebles also blasts the engines with buckets of hail and tests the strength of the composite fan blades by shooting large ice balls at them from a special gun.
After water and ice trials, jet engines graduate to actual flight tests. The GE90-115B is the world’s most powerful jet engine. It has more horsepower than the rocket that took to space the first American, Alan Shepard. Its takeoff thrust can make chunks of concrete go airborne outside the runway at GE’s flight test center in Victorville, Ca.
After a decade in development, GE’s GEnx engines now power Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft. Take a look at the acrobatics the passenger jet performed at the most recent Farnborough airshow.
GE’s smaller engines can also do extreme things. This Czech-made L-410 plane flies to the world’s most dangerous airport in Lukla, Nepal. It’s powered by the company’s H80 turboprop engine.
As power outages go, the iguana affair was a mundane one. On July 27, a hapless lizard shorted a piece of electrical equipment in the middle of the Florida Keys and knocked out power for 11,000 local residents. It was an act of nature no outage prevention system would have been able to predict. But since the lizard climbed inside a substation, repair crews were able to locate the short and restore power in 10 minutes. “Spotting problems within the limited space of a substation is relatively easy,” says Chris Prince, application engineer at GE Digital Energy. “It’s a high-density nerve center for distributing power. But good luck finding and fixing a problem that fast when it happens along the miles of overhead and underground lines connecting the substation to the consumers.”
In an era when a smartphone can quickly pinpoint its location on a map, few power providers know that customers lost electricity before somebody calls them. Fewer still can see whether the outage was caused by a fallen tree branch, a lightning or faulty equipment.
Americans are taking notice. A new survey measuring public perception of grid resiliency found that many respondents were willing to pay $10 per month on top of their electricity bill to make sure that the grid becomes more reliable (see the results here).
The survey, which was commissioned by GE’s Digital Energy business, also found that a majority wanted utilities to start using digital communications and social media tools to keep them informed in real time during a power outage. “Consumers want to see investment in technology that prevents power outages and reduces the time it takes to turn power back on,” says John McDonald, director of technical strategy and policy development at GE Digital Energy.
Utilities are getting the message. As wireless networks became more ubiquitous, power companies started placing digital sensors along its lines and inside switches, breakers, smart meters and other devices. The sensors feed grid data to data collection centers where algorithms process it to create a virtual map of the distribution network.
Prince says that the network map resembles a tree where the transmission lines that come from the power generation plants are the roots and the substation is the trunk. “The feeder circuits that reach out through neighborhoods to residential customers are the branches where we’ve traditionally had the least visibility,” he says.
Prince says that an outage event could be due to a single cause or multiple causes nested together. This makes the prime cause harder to find. But digital systems that connect the grid to the Industrial Internet and string together smart sensors, controls, and software can quickly detect and locate trouble, and then isolate a likely problem area along the right branch. “Instead of telling the crew to patrol miles of a line, I can narrow the location to a block or two,” he says. “At the same time, the control system will quickly restore power to the other lines leading from the trunk that did not suffer any damage, and bring power back to those customers sooner.”
McDonald says that a number of utilities have already started implementing automation on the feeder lines where they see the most value. NSTAR, for example, brings electricity to 1.1 million customers living in central and eastern Massachusetts. Starting in 2009, the company reached out to GE and started building a “self-healing” grid. Today the system consists of 2,000 smart switches and 5,000 voltage and current sensors. The system was already tested by Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
During Irene, 500,000 customers lost power but the system was able to reroute it and turn the lights back on for close to half of them within an hour. NSTAR calculates that the new grid visibility has allowed it avoid 600,000 customer outages so far. “The concept of grid monitoring has been around for decades,” McDonald says. “But the advances in big data, software, fiber optics and digital wireless communications now really bring it alive.”
The rural health clinic in Kimalamisale, Tanzania, sits at the end of a rutted sandy road some 160 miles from the nearest large town. Although the brightly colored concrete structure serves thousands of villagers living in the surrounding savannah, it has no electricity and its main healthcare equipment consists of a stethoscope, weighing scales and a blood pressure machine.
The clinic is a snapshot of the challenges facing Africa – 60 percent of Africans live without electricity, and although the continent bears a quarter of the global disease burden, healthcare spending is just 1 percent of the world’s total, according to a recent report by McKinsey.
But the prognosis is improving. Governments across the region are investing in healthcare infrastructure and reforms. South Africa has committed to building 43 hospitals and 213 clinics over the next five years as part of its National Health Insurance System. Nigeria will receive its first 1,000 bed hospital through the Dangote Foundation in the coming years. (For more information on electrification look here)
It’s not an easy fix. Experience has shown that what works in American hospitals won’t work in Africa. At least 40 percent of hospital equipment in Africa is out of service because of lack of spare parts and training for healthcare professionals. This compares with just 1 percent of equipment in high-income countries. “Hospitals are not hotels,” says C.J. DeAngelo, a healthcare technology planner with GE Healthcare. “They are highly technical, designed buildings that live and breathe.”
DeAngelo has been working with African healthcare providers for several years. He says that focusing on the basics like infection control, patient safety, training and staffing is a good way to start.
DeAngelo says that new African hospitals are using natural cross ventilation, secluded wards and an effective triage system to help reduce the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. He says that simple measures like having a hand washing station no more than 20 meters away anywhere in the hospital help prevent hospital acquired infections.
In Kimalamisale things started changing in 2012, when a trained nurse arrived with a pocket-size ultrasound machine called Vscan. Her visit was part of a research study designed to test innovations that will help speed up governmental efforts to meet the United Nation’s millennium development goals in Africa. The study was developed by Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute in partnership with GE’s healthymagination campaign.
A nurse midwife is using a Vscan to image a pregnant woman in Tanzania. Top Image: Devotha Mathias Chizima traveled to the Kisarawe District Hospital for her ultrasound scan.
Ifakara trained a total of 14 nurse midwives in ultrasound scanning. They fanned out across the Kisarawe district, population 230,000 of which 28 percent are women of reproductive age, to five rural clinics like the one in Kimalamisale, and also to a district hospital. “Newborn and maternal health is the most critical health issue in Africa, ahead of malaria or AIDS,” says Janeen Uzzell, director of healthcare programs for healthymagination in Africa.
In Tanzania, hemorrhage, obstructed labor, sepsis and other pregnancy complications cause 454 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. That’s more than three times higher than U.N. goals.
The rural clinics in Tanzania rely on solar panels for electricity, lack telephone service, and have bad roads and no ambulances. But the team developed a system for charging the Vscans with solar power. Kallol Mukherji, GE program manager in Tanzania, says that he was initially surprised when the women in Tanzania showed no emotional reaction to the images on the ultrasound screen. “They thought that we uploaded the picture beforehand,” he says. “They did not believe that you could actually see your baby before it’s born through a device.”
“We don’t just have a product,” Uzzell says. “We have a visualization tool that can help change maternal and newborn health in Africa.”
The Kisarawe District Hospital in Tanzania. Some 40 percent of equipment at African hospitals is not working because of lack of technicians and spare parts. GE Foundation, along with Engineering World Health and Duke University’s Developing World Healthcare Technology Laboratory, will invest $1.5 million in a biomedical equipment technician training program in Nigeria to fix broken machines.
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.”
Sweat can be a smelly messenger, but one that also carries a trove of valuable information about how our bodies are feeling. Scientists at several labs are now trying to pick its lock with nanotechnology, including know-how transferred from GE’s jet engine research, to develop flexible, Band-Aid-like wireless sensors sensitive enough to detect a drop of biomolecules found in sweat in 2.5 million gallons of water.
“We are developing small wireless sensors for measuring biological markers in sweat that affect our stress and energy levels,” says Scott Miller, lab manager for nanostructures and surfaces at GE Global Research. “We can do it with a blood test, but we would like to detect the early signs of stress and fatigue non-invasively from sweat. The faster we can spot it, the earlier we can deal with it.”
Miller and his team are working with the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Cincinnati on the project, which is partially funded by the U.S. Air Force.
The body has two types of sweat glands, eccrine and appocrine. It’s the appocrine glands, which are located in areas like the armpits and the groin, that are active during stressful situations and produce thicker, oil-like perspiration. Body odor comes from bacteria feasting on this kind of sweat. Top Image Credit: Val Gempis, U.S. Air Force.
Nanotechnology can manipulate matter on the level of atoms and molecules. “That’s why our receptors are so sensitive,” says materials scientist Azar Alizadeh, who is on Miller’s team.
The receptors inside the sensors attract the biomarkers and convert them into electrical signals. The signals then travel wirelessly to a database for storage and analysis. “We’re actually utilizing expertise in microfluidics that we typically apply to manipulate and improve the airflow and efficiency of our aircraft engines to direct the sweat over the sensor ever so precisely,” Alizadeh wrote on her blog. “We create pathways and valves in the sensor itself to control where the sweat goes, so that we can get the most accurate measurement.”
The target biomarkers include Orexin-A, which is a naturally occurring neuropeptide hormone released by the hypothalamus in the brain. It plays a crucial role in the stability of arousal and alertness. Another target is the stress hormone cortisol. “Cortisol level changes during the day, but with this device, we will have a dynamic reading,” Alizadeh says. “We could see in real time how your body responds to stress.”
The Air Force is interested in using the sensors to monitor pilots and understand and improve their performance. But the technology could have much broader civilian applications. “Physical and mental fatigue is a factor for air traffic controllers, fire fighters, heavy-equipment operators, and many other professions,” Miller says.
The tiny sensors could also go big in healthcare. “One day we could be analyzing electrolytes, metabolites and other molecular markers correlated with disease,” Miller says. “We’re already doing this with patient monitors in the hospital, but this technology will cut the wires.”
In the early 1990s, Harvard radiologist Dr. Ferenc Jolesz devised a clever way for killing brain tumors with a laser. But he ran into a hard obstacle: the skull.
Jolesz wanted to send a laser beam along a fiber optic strand inserted through a hole in the patient’s cranium. The beam’s intense heat would destroy the target. But he couldn’t see where the beam was going. “It was like trying to evaporate an apple seed inside a whole apple without cutting it,” Jolesz says. “If you don’t deliver enough heat, you will only dent the seed. If you deliver too much, you’ll make a big hole in the apple.”
Jolesz thought magnetic resonance imaging could help. The right MRI machine would allow doctors to see inside the body, monitor temperature changes inside the skull, and perform surgery at the same time.
One problem: a machine like this did not exist. Then as now, most MRI machines enclosed the patient in a tunnel at the center of the magnet. This design made brain surgery impossible.
But a GE executive who knew about Jolesz’s project introduced him to Trifon Laskaris, a medical imaging pioneer working at GE’s research labs in upstate New York. Laskaris listened to Jolesz and came back with a design that sliced the multi-ton MRI magnet in half. The redesigned machine looked like a double donut with enough space between the two rings to give the surgeon access to the patient. “We could image the patient and operate at the same time,” Jolesz says. “Not only laser procedures could be done, but all types of open surgeries.”
The first MRI-guided procedure was a biopsy that took place in 1994. Today, Laskaris’ design “is still the best configuration” for magnetic resonance imaging during surgery, Jolesz says. Doctors at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital have used it for more than 3,500 surgeries, including 1,400 craniotomies, brain biopsies and other neurosurgery procedures.
Laskaris received a dozen patents for his work on the double donut machine. He holds more than 200 U.S. patents, a feat matched only by a handful of GE inventors. “Trifon’s work speaks for itself,” says Mark Little, who runs GE Global Research. “Without his decades of dedicated research into superconducting magnets, MRI technology would not be where it is today, a mainstay of hospitals around the world.”
Trifon Laskaris redesigned the MRI machine and opened the way for MRI-guided brain surgery.
Laskaris says that he liked playing with gadgets since he was a small boy growing up in Athens, Greece. “My father was a high school teacher and my mother was a seamstress,” he says. “One day, her sewing machine broke down. I was just six years old, but I connected the pulleys, installed the little motor and put in the switches.”
Laskaris studied engineering at the National University of Athens, andcame to the U.S. and GE in 1966. “At the time there was a big U.S. space program and many American engineers were going to NASA,” Laskaris says. “That drained a lot of talent from the industry.”
At GE, Laskaris started developing software simulating cooling flows inside massive power generators for nuclear power plants. But he quickly moved to GE Global Research and started working on magnets and superconductivity, a physical phenomenon that drops electrical resistance to zero in extremely cold metals. “When you power up a supercooled magnet, it can produce the same magnetic field for a thousand years with no more power required. You can do so many cool things with it,” he laughs.
In 1983, when a team of GE engineers developed the world’s first full-body MRI, Laskaris helped design the machine’s 1.5 tesla magnet. “We started by imaging grapefruits,” he says. The magnet has since become the industry standard. There are some 22,000 1.5 tesla MRI machines working around the world, generating 9,000 medical images every hour, or 80 million scans per year.
But Laskaris, now 70 years old, is pushing on. Liquid helium used to cool down the magnets is becoming scarce and his team is working on designs that need just a fraction of the fluid. The first GE MRI machine 30 years ago used 5,000 liters of helium. His latest design in development is projected to need no more than ten.