GE, Safran Map New Jet-Engine Design for Lower-Carbon Future
(Bloomberg) -- General Electric Co. and Safran SA are teaming up to develop technologies for a new generation of jet engines, seeking a breakthrough that would cut fuel consumption by more than 20% and potentially power single-aisle planes by the middle of next decade.
The demonstration program will focus on a so-called open fan architecture, in which the engine’s blades operate without a traditional casing, as well as other techniques to boost efficiency. The longtime joint-venture partners in CFM International Inc. will also pursue hybrid-electric technology and make the engine fully compatible with sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen.
“We will work to prove that burning hydrogen in an engine and generating zero carbon dioxide is doable,” John Slattery, head of GE Aviation, said in an interview Monday. “We’re taking the ‘Is the engine hydrogen-compatible’ question out of the equation.”
The GE-Safran effort offers the clearest signal yet of how global aerospace giants will seek to shrink their carbon footprints. Planemakers Boeing Co. and Airbus SE are under mounting pressure as governments crack down on carbon emissions that spur climate change. Much of that task will fall on engine manufacturers such as GE, Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc and Raytheon Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney unit.
GE fell 1.6% to $13.47 at 3:16 p.m. in New York. Safran slipped less than 1% to 123.10 euros at the close in Paris.
The partners also extended their joint venture to 2050. The companies will double the number of engineers on the new program, which has been under study since 2019.
“We have to act now to accelerate our efforts to reduce our impact on the environment,” Safran Chief Executive Officer Olivier Andries said in a statement.
Safran has previously said it would be difficult to improve on the 15% fuel efficiencies achieved with the latest-generation Leap engine, which powers the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 Max jets. The Leap uses conventional turbofan technology, and while more fuel savings could come from using larger-dimension fans, these would be heavier and harder to mount under aircraft wings.
The new project with Boston-based GE comes after work by Paris-based Safran on “open-rotor” engines, an approach that breaks with the turbofan design because the propeller blades operate without a surrounding casing, or nacelle.
In May 2017, Safran carried out ground tests in southern France of an open-rotor design. That engine had two counter-rotating fans and no thrust reversers.
While fuel consumption and carbon emissions are lower, noise can be a challenge since the propellers aren’t shielded. But Safran’s open-rotor demonstrator produced noise levels on a par with the Leap and the new engine project would aim for that at a “minimum,” Andries said.
The demonstrator was built through a European research program called Clean Sky that began in 2008. Two years ago, the French manufacturer’s head of technology, Stephane Cueille, wrote that after 70 hours of testing, there was still “a long way to go” on the technology that might not even have a future.
CFM’s drive comes as Boeing and Airbus chart divergent paths to curb emissions.
Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun recently ruled out making a hydrogen-fueled jetliner before 2050, emphasizing more conventional propulsion systems that incorporate sustainable fuels. Airbus wants to put a hydrogen-powered aircraft into service by 2035, though it has hinted it will continue to upgrade its top-selling A320 series of narrow-body jets.
“We’ll be working and discussing with Airbus the testing at some point in time of a hydrogen-powered aircraft,” Andries said. Safran and Airbus are working with rocket launcher Arianespace on the technology.
Boeing and Airbus have often timed all-new aircraft to engine technology that provides a step-change in efficiency, such as the GEnx turbofans that made Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner twin-aisle greener and quieter than its predecessors.
The timing of CFM’s latest push could complicate Boeing’s decision about when to introduce a new narrow-body jetliner to replace the 737, whose fuselage dates to a design from the 1960s. The Chicago-based planemaker has been weighing a midrange jet to counter the A321neo, where Airbus is dominating sales.
Introducing a new engine next decade could also be coupled with changes to how GE does business with its customers.
Historically, engine makers have sold their products at a loss that they then recoup through service contracts that can span decades. That “razor-blade” business model has come under pressure as engines have become more reliable, eating into aftermarket revenue, said aerospace consultant Richard Aboulafia.
“Shifting to a somewhat-more-than-zero upfront price for engines certainly could be on the table for discussion,” he said.
Indeed, the commercial introduction of a new engine stemming from CFM’s development push may be an opportunity “to figure out if the current business model is sustainable for what the new business cases are going to look like as we go forward,” Slattery said.
“That’s a conversation that I will come to the table with an open mind,” he said, “and I will also come to the table with some ideas on that front.”
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