GE’s ‘green’ engine offers new chance with military

By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / May 16, 2011

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WASHINGTON — For months, General Electric has fought an uphill battle to keep funds flowing for development of a next-generation F-35 fighter engine, a program the White House, Pentagon, and many in Congress oppose as wasteful — but one which would support hundreds of jobs at GE Aviation’s plants in Lynn and elsewhere.

Attracting less attention has been GE’s work on new “green’’ engine technology for the Air Force that, analysts and specialists say, could greatly improve the company’s ability to compete for engine contracts. The technology is intended to make aircraft engines far more fuel-efficient, saving money for the Pentagon while potentially reestablishing GE’s long-term role in jet engine contracting, and the jobs that come with it.

The Pentagon has agreed to pay GE Aviation about $255 million for the demonstration program through 2013, officials said last week.

GE’s effort reveals an axiom of the defense industry: contractors may get bumped from one competition, but with so few companies able to do the work, there are always openings to get back into the game.

“Seems to work out where everyone gets their piece of the pie sooner or later,’’ said William C. Storey Jr., president of the Virginia-based Teal Group, a market research and analysis company. “It pretty much gives them the inroads into continuing their military engine business, especially if the [alternate engine] does finally die.’’

Though still in its early stages, the Air Force program known as ADVENT is intended to produce a new type of engine technology that would allow planes to fly farther on less fuel. Specialists say the technology could become standard on all military jets and could have potential for commercial aviation, in which fuel is a top driver of cost.

“If the ADVENT engine demonstrates the technology breakthroughs as we hope, this program will influence every engine GE develops and manufactures going forward,’’ Jeff Martin, GE Aviation’s manager for the program, said in a written response to questions.

Rolls-Royce North America, which has been GE’s partner on the F-35 alternate engine, is a competitor in the ADVENT program. Rolls-Royce did not respond to a request for comment.

About 3,200 employees work at GE’s Lynn plant, which produces engines for the F/A-18 fighter jet, Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, and other aircraft. It is not clear how many jobs the new variable cycle technology might create in Lynn — the development work is being done at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio under the oversight of the Air Force — but Lynn workers have produced one of the key elements, a new heat-resistant ceramic.

The program began in 2007 and is part of a broader Pentagon effort to reduce energy use, increase efficiency, and reduce dependence on foreign fuels. The military has set daunting energy-conservation benchmarks, such as requiring half of plane fuel to be blended with domestic biofuels by 2016, and mandating that new Air Force buildings be completely independent of energy from fossil fuel by 2030.

The engine program could save the Air Force enormous amounts of money, said Air Force Chief Scientist Mark T. Maybury. The Chelmsford native is effusive in his enthusiasm for the engine program’s potential, because the Air Force consumes about 80 percent of the military’s fuel, he said, costing between $6 billion and $8 billion a year.

“It’s not green for green’s sake — it’s green for force protection, it’s green for combat capability,’’ he said.

At its simplest, the “variable cycle engine’’ allows more air to bypass the engine during flight, letting the plane cruise without burning additional fuel. By controlling the airflow, the pilot could quickly shift from supersonic maneuvers to subsonic cruising.

The technology would be akin to adding another gear to a car, increasing its efficiency by as much as 30 percent.

“Historically we’ve been talking about incremental tweaks to get 1 percent, a couple of percent’’ of added performance, Maybury said. “We’re really talking about double-digit increases in performance.’’

R. John Hansman Jr., an aeronautics professor at MIT, said that the technology would be a huge step toward improving performance of tactical fighters. Jet engines burn vast amounts of fuel for the brief thrusts needed for supersonic travel, he said, and reducing fuel use during high-speed travel as well as long-distance cruising and circling would be “tremendous.’’

“If this becomes a workable technology, then all tactical airplanes that want to go supersonic would probably want that engine technology on their airplanes,’’ he said. “So it’s a matter of being in the game for these programs that are perceived to be high value.’’

GE’s alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which critics have long said is a waste, has taken its hardest knocks this year after budget-conscious House Republicans voted to defund the program. It then failed to retain its funding in the budget’s final version.

The company has vowed to continue the program without Pentagon funding through 2012, and in a slap to the administration and the Pentagon, allies on a House committee voted this week to continue allowing the company access to the facilities and hardware that it has built so far.

At the same time, the ADVENT program has been ongoing with little attention. The program has yet to produce an entire engine; General Electric has been testing components and is supposed to have an entire demonstration engine ready for testing in 2013. The technology — in its entirety or components of it — would then be integrated into engine designs.

Other companies, such as GE’s archrival Pratt & Whitney, could compete for future “green’’ engine contracts, though Pratt & Whitney tried and failed to win a program contract. It has revealed plans for a self-funded variable cycle engine, although experts agree it is difficult to develop a viable engine without government assistance.

A company spokeswoman declined to comment.

Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said the tiny pool of companies with the know-how to do such work shows the military contracting process is not truly competitive, and as a result the same companies get contracts over and over.

Still, he lauded the Air Force’s efficiency goals and its desire to reduce fuel costs in the military, whose annual budget is larger than the economy of Belgium.

“When they’re operating in logistically difficult-to-reach areas of the world, which tend to be where the conflicts are,’’ he said, “getting these fuel efficiencies can mean life or death.’’

Theo Emery can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @temery.


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