Science In Action: Inside GE’s Research Labs

August 26, 2013

Nobody likes turbulence. The familiar kind of air turbulence may rattle nerves and spill coffee into passengers’ laps. But planes also suffer from its less palpable form along aircraft wings and engines. A few years ago, Seyed Saddoughi, who works as principal engineer in the Aero-Thermal and Mechanical Systems lab at GE Global Research (GRC), developed thin devices the size of two stacked credit cards that can smooth the drag caused by turbulence and make flying more efficient. The devices, called synthetic jet actuators, work a little like our lungs and generate rapid pumping and sucking by applying electrical current across pieces of special ceramic material separated by a narrow space.

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Saddoughi’s work intrigued his GRC colleague Peter De Bock, who used the tiny bellows to build an ingenious cooling system that could make tablets and laptops thinner and quieter and add as much as 30 minutes to laptop battery life. “Innovation is about talking to people, connecting with people,” De Bock says. “[It] is about knowing the field, knowing what’s out there, what’s needed.”

Saddoughi and De Bock’s labs are at GRC headquarters in Niskayuna in upstate New York, near where Thomas Edison opened GE’s first research labs in 1900. Nobel winners such as radio telegraph inventor Guglielmo Marconi, Niels Bohr, who cracked the structure of the atom, and I.P. Pavlov famous for his conditioned dogs came for a visit.

GRC has since grown global and added labs in San Ramon, California, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Bangalore, and Munich. The labs employ 3,000 people, including 1,125 PhDs. GE spends annually $6 billion on R&D and GRC scientists are working on a long list of problems, from new materials for jet engines and gas turbines to molecular diagnostics, better batteries, and software analytics for turbines and oil & gas rigs that crunch data coming over the Industrial Internet.

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Engineers at GE Global Research are developing advanced devices called synthetic jet actuators. These piezoelectric bellows can make air and water flow more efficiently across aircraft wings, wind turbine blades and boat hulls. Here, a water-adapted synthetic jet actuator fires a jet like a fountain in a lab demonstration.

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GRC engineers built this demonstration to show the power of non-thermal plasma. They generate a “cold” plasma inside the clear box on the right using high voltage, low current electricity. Smoke inside the box is pumped out through the vent in the middle when the electricity breaks the surrounding air into ions, which creates flow. This system transforms electrical energy into mechanical energy while using no moving parts. The team investigates non-thermal plasma technology to assist engine combustion by improving fuel burn and performance.

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Researchers at GE Global Research are putting advanced insulation through its paces by zapping it with high voltage electricity.

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Seyed Saddoughi, the principal engineer in Aero-Thermal & Mechanical Systems lab at GRC, inspects one of his creations. His research team developed a propeller by attaching a synthetic jet actuator to a rotatable arm. Like the device in the first image, this is a piezoelectric bellows, made of two slightly separated metallic sheets that suck in and expel air when electrified. Their motion generates a jet of air that powers the propeller up to 1,000 rotations per minute. The work is part of their investigations into advanced active flow and combustion control.

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This ultra-efficient water-jet cutter can blast through slabs of metal with ease. GRC engineers are investigating the computer-guided advanced milling tool for use in several industries. Here, the water jet is being tested to cut wind turbine parts from a solid aluminum ingot. Firing an abrasive mixture of garnet dust and plain water at a pressure of 60,000 pounds per square inch, the water-jet cutter could dramatically reduce manufacturing time at GE plants.

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GRC scientists are working on advanced “superhydrophobic” coatings that can completely repel water.