GE engineers have spent the last seven decades perfecting the jet engine. Now they are taking a new step. The company said this week that it has started delivering high-tech wing parts for the next-generation passenger aircraft. The parts use light-weight composite materials similar to the fan blades and fan cases already serving on the latest GE jet engines.
Airbus has installed the composite parts on the A350 XWB aircraft, a brand new “extra-wide body” passenger plane it has started testing in Toulouse. The GE wing package includes composite panels and aluminum alloy rib assemblies and fittings. The 3,000 components will form the fixed trailing edges of the plane’s wings, which span more than 200 feet.
Spreading its Wings: The new Airbus A350 XWB will be the first civilian plane using composites produced by a new advanced manufacturing method.
Many companies produce modern composites by laying one sheet of carbon fiber embedded in resin on top of another. Then they apply heat, pressurize the parts with inert nitrogen gas, and “cure” them in special ovens called autoclaves. The autoclaves squeeze out air bubbles between the layers, eliminate voids, and make the parts hard. Sounds easy, but the process is complex and expensive.
Engineers at a GE composite plant in Hamble-le-Rice in England optimized a new way to manufacture composites that does not need autoclaves. They originally used the method a decade ago to mold lightweight carbon composite parts for luxury sports cars.
The new process, called out-of-autoclave curing, gets the same results by exposing composite parts to vacuum that sucks out the air bubbles. The A350 XWB will be the first large civilian aircraft in production using such components.
The combination of high strength and light weight has made composites a popular choice for plane makers. It helps them make lighter, more fuel efficient planes, that can cover longer distances. The new A350 XWB plane, which Airbus hopes to introduce during the 2013 Paris Air Show in June, has more than 50 percent of structural parts made from composites.
GE is also using a variety of composites to make its jet engines. The new GEnx engine, and the GE90, the world’s most powerful jet engine, have fan blades and the fan case made from carbon fibre composites. The new CFM LEAP engine, which GE is developing in a joint-venture with Snecma, will use a revolutionary ceramic matrix composite inside the combustion chamber. This material remains strong at temperatures as high as 2,400 F, well above any advanced alloy. As a result, the LEAP engine can extract more power from the intense heat inside the core, and improve fuel efficiency by as much as 15 percent, compared to current CFM engines.