Heat Transfer in GE Jet Engines

Greetings from 31,000 feet.

Less than 20 feet to my right is a CFM-56 jet engine, slung under the wing of a 737 taking me to Albuquerque, NM. The 737 is hands-down the most popular commercial aircraft on the planet, and since the CFM-56 is the only engine that powers the modern 737, it represents the most popular jet engine ever made.

My name is Todd Wetzel and I lead the Thermal Systems Organization at GE Global Research. My team of ~90 researchers in New York, Munich, and Bangalore, have a singular focus: bringing to life critical new heat transfer, thermal measurement, and thermodynamic cycle technologies for the full breadth of GE’s products.

That’s why when I look out at that engine pulling on the wing of my 737, I’m amazed at all of the thermal technology required to make it reliable, powerful, and efficient. To drive maximum efficiency, we burn the jet fuel so hot in the engine that, left to its own, it would melt and destroy every metal component in its path. But thanks to aggressive cooling technology, developed by hundreds of engineers over the last several decades, those parts survive masterfully, regularly carrying millions of passengers around the world safely from destination to destination.

But the CFM-56 isn’t my generation’s engine. Sure, my team is still active in research on current variants of that engine, but most of our efforts are pointed to the future. And the future is the LEAP.

The LEAP engine will power 100% of the next generation 737Max, and more than half of all Airbus A320neo’s. Over my lifetime, these two aircraft will be far and away the most common commercial aircraft on the planet. There will literally be more than a thousand  LEAP engines in the air every minute of every day during most of the rest of my life.

This is also the most technology-rich engine we’ve ever made. The LEAP will have 15% better fuel consumption than the workhorse CFM-56. Doing so requires even hotter gas temperatures, and stingier cooling. My team of researchers is extremely busy right now perfecting a range of cooling technologies to make that engine even more reliable, powerful, and efficient than its predecessor. Our labs are running just about every day, testing new cooling features. Our computers are running our most sophisticated CFD simulations ever. This time around, we are also developing advanced measurement technologies that will give us unprecedented detail on the temperatures in the LEAP engine.

As I sit in this plane typing away, the CFM-56 to my right just hums along, happy to do its job, unaware that a newer, younger pup is on its way!

But jet engine technology is just the tip of what my team does. The same skills required to cool a jet engine are also valuable for a range of products, including energy systems, electronics, and just about everything else GE makes.

I’m starting up this series of blogs to give a glimpse into my team, our technologies, and our technologists. You can get a jumpstart by checking out a few existing posts on other thermal technologies from my team, including:

And the list goes on and on.

I’ve got a great job: a brilliant team working on a wide range of thermal technologies for one of the biggest and most diverse technology companies in the world. Jet engines, gas turbines, optical diagnostics, LEDs, avionics, Rankine cycles, geothermal energy, concentrated solar power, compressed air energy storage, natural gas vehicles, healthcare equipment, biomass generators, fuel cells…I look forward to sharing it all with you.

Check back for more updates!

- Todd

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