You Can Bring a Bull to This China Shop: GE Scientists Outline What’s Next in Research

July 20, 2014

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Until recently, few engineers dared to put a part made from anything other than metal inside a spinning turbine. But Krishan Luthra had his eye on ceramics. “I thought it would be the Holy Grail if we could make it work,” says Luthra, chief scientist for manufacturing and materials technologies at GE’s lab headquarters in upstate New York. “We could get more power and savings out of our engines. It could really make an impact.”

Ceramics are strong, light and heat resistant. These traits that are high on the wish list of many industrial designers. But the kitchen variety has one fatal flaw. “When you hit it with another object, it fails catastrophically,” Luthra says.

But Luthra was not deterred. He and his team partnered with the Department of Energy and started studying a promising new family of ceramic materials called ceramic matrix composites (CMCs). One group in particular retained all the good qualities and it was tough, too.

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Luthra’s team flung a steel ball flying at 150 mph at their ceramic composite to prove that it would not shatter like a plate. (Chipping was okay since it did not release large pieces of debris into a turbine.) Top image: Brain research is on the Next List.

Starting in the 1990s, it took Luthra’s team two decades to come up with a version of the material good enough for mass production. The return on their research, however, is already massive.

CMCs have found applications in the hot section of the latest gas turbines and the next-generation LEAP jet engine. Although the engine won’t enter service until next year, it is already the bestselling engine in GE history with $96 billion (U.S. list price) in orders. “We took the long view and the high potential payoff justified the high risk,” Luthra says. (The LEAP was developed by CFM International, a joint-venture between GE Aviation and France’s Snecma.)

There are other new technologies leaving GE’s labs that could help define the future. One is a new fuel cell that could free people and businesses from being connected to the grid and revolutionize localized power generation.

The fuel cell is part of the “Next List,” a set of six guiding principles for GE research and development in the near future. They include mind mapping, extreme machines, the Industrial Internet and data analysis, as well as a new generation of “super materials” that builds on the legacy of Luthra’s project (see infographic).

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GE spends 5 percent of its revenue on R&D, and employs more than 2,000 scientists at eight research centers around the world. The ninth will open in Brazil this fall. “Just like we did with CMCs, we are ready to solve the world’s toughest problems,” says Mark Little, senior vice president who directs GE Global Research. “We are focused on what’s next.”

Little also talked to Re/code about the list last week. 

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