NASA is developing a hybrid-electric jet engine, to boost the efficiency of airliners. NASA is now realising a protoptype for ground testing, before heading into production, hopefully by 2030s. These new jet engines can potentially make air travel sustainable.

Illustration of NASA’s small-core engine installed withina GE engine. (Image Credit: GE Aerospace).

New Delhi: NASA and its industry partners are leading the charge to develop a new engine for the next generation of ultra-efficient airliners. The project is moving from a developmental phase, where researchers have selected the component technologies, and are now advancing to the second phase, where scientists will design, build and test a compact core in partnership with General Electric (GE) Aerospace.

The initiative is aligned with NASA’s goal of making the aviation industry more sustainable. The idea is to develop a small core for a hybrid-electric turbofan jet engine that can reduce the amount of fuel burned by conventional engines by 10 per cent. Within the engine core, the compressed air is combined with fuel and ignited, to generate power. By miniaturising the core, NASA hopes to improve fuel efficiency and reducing carbon emissions.

Cross section of a typical turbofan jet engine showing the combustor in teal, the high-pressure turbine in blue and the high-pressure compressor in yellow.

Cross section of a turbofan engine with the improved components marked. (Image Credit: NASA).

The project is named HyTEC for Hybrid Thermally Efficient Core. The idea is to demonstrate the compact core and prepare the technology for adoption in engines powering next-gen aircraft in the 2030s. Lead of the HyTEC team at NASA’s Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland says, “Phase 2 is very complex. It’s not just a core demonstration. What we’re creating has never been done before, and it involves many different technologies coming together to form a new type of engine.”

How to make a more efficient jet engine

The researchers had to explore new materials for use in the engine, with researchers coming up with alternatives after three years. The engine core had to be made of durable materials capable of withstanding higher temperatures. The researchers also explored advanced aerodynamics and other crucial technical elements. The next step is to build a core gor ground testing.

One of the most important aspects of the new engine is hybridisation. The core will be augmented by electrical power, to further reduce fuel use and carbon emissions. If HyTEC is successful, the scientists will have reated the first mild hybrid-electrical engine which is suitable for use in airliners.

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