Synthetic Jets Help Keep Avionics Cool at Cruising Altitude

When you think of airplanes, one of the first objects that comes to mind is the combustion engine that allows it to fly high in the sky. And for decades, the propulsion system has been GE’s principal focus as well. But with the revolution in computing and electronics, these planes have become increasingly reliant on another source of power—electric power.

Just consider the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It requires a megawatt of energy just to meet the aircraft’s electricity needs. That’s enough energy to power 1,000 homes.

Much of the plane’s electrical power needs are driven by the sophisticated avionics that help navigate the plane and run the entertainment systems that we all enjoy during a flight. These electronics need to be kept cool, and GE is applying innovative solutions to address this need.

In fact, the cooling technology GE is developing actually stems from another aviation application that has nothing to do with cooling. For years, GE scientists have been experimenting with synthetic jet actuators to reduce turbulence along aircraft wings and wind turbine blades. These actuators are ultra-thin devices no thicker than a credit card that contain no moving parts, but can mimic our breathing pattern by pulling in and pushing out air. All they require is a small electrical current to power the process.

What’s attractive about this technology is the elimination of moving parts and the small size and energy requirements for these jets to function. They take up little space and little energy, while offering a much higher degree of reliability.

GE scientists have subjected these devices to some of the most rugged tests to test their durability. For example, they placed them in a swirling sand storm during one field test and found that the jets not only continued to function, they were self-cleaning. Instead of clogging, they actually pushed sand out to keep the airflow moving.

In addition to avionics, GE’s synthetic jet technology can be applied to other, more common electronic devices such as laptops and notebooks. Here their thinner form factor vs. conventional, bulkier cooling fans will enable device makers to consider even thinner platforms or platforms with more electronics built into them.