By Dr. J. Michael McQuade
The most powerful innovations are those that change people’s perception of what is possible. In today’s world, “innovation” is often synonymous with “fast.” New social media and game apps, for example, can come to life within a matter of days. When the stakes are high, the mission is critical, and failure is not an option, the reality is innovation can take time – but that doesn’t mean the outcome is any less disruptive.
Take the Pratt & Whitney PurePower engine with Geared Turbofan technology, which is revolutionizing air travel. Simply put, this engineering marvel introduces a gear into the engine, enabling the large fan to turn at its optimum speed (slow) and the rest of the engine parts to move at their optimum speed (fast). This technology allows jet engines to be quieter and much more efficient – benefitting airline operators, people on the ground, and passengers in the sky.
The concept of using a geared engine had been around for decades before Pratt & Whitney started researching the technology in the mid-1980s. Despite this, the technology proved tremendously difficult to implement – and it was long accepted to be an impossible feat. Pratt & Whitney and its parent company, United Technologies, ignored the naysayers and went on to invest more than $10 billion and 20 years to prove the concept worked, perform the extensive testing needed to ensure safety, and turn it into a commercial product.
“While in theory a geared engine had the potential to achieve significant efficiency gains and noise reduction, many within the engineering community thought the idea of perfecting the geared engine for practical use was nothing more than a pipe dream,” said Dr. Alan Epstein, Pratt & Whitney’s vice president of technology and environment. “As we have done for 90 years, Pratt & Whitney advanced materials, processes and manufacturing technologies because we understood the enormous impact this innovation would have on our business, the environment and the aerospace industry.”
Ultimately, United Technologies’ determination to push science, technology and ingenuity to the limit made the impossible, possible. The Geared Turbofan engine is in service with three airlines on two continents – and engine orders from operators worldwide surpass 7,000*.
This breakthrough engine is cleaner, greener and quieter than any previous jet engine. Over the next 10 years, the Geared Turbofan engine – which burns 16 percent less fuel than other prior-generation jet engines – will enable airlines to avoid releasing some 160 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, and save approximately 15 billion gallons of fuel valued at about $40 billion (at current prices).
In addition, the Geared Turbofan engine reduces noise footprint by 75 percent on the ground, potentially allowing carriers to fly over some areas where they were previously not permitted due to noise regulations. And, with significantly fewer parts, the Geared Turbofan engine will also increase engine reliability, substantially reducing the cost of aircraft maintenance. Thanks to a sustained growth path for the engine, future versions will offer even greater efficiency.
This week, as tens of thousands of aviation and aerospace professionals come together for the Farnborough International Airshow, companies from around the world will showcase an astonishing array of innovations. Pratt & Whitney’s PurePower engine with Geared Turbofan technology will be among them. More than a story of purposeful innovation, this engine serves as a powerful testament to investing in technology for the long term. The Geared Turbofan engine did not happen overnight. Instead, like other game-changing innovations, it is the result of a determination to solve engineering challenges in the face of past failures, the courage to take risks on innovation, and the willingness to put in the hard work to turn a vision into reality.
* Including options and unannounced orders.
Dr. J. Michael McQuade is Senior Vice President for Science and Technology
at United Technologies Corp.
Image courtesy of Pratt & Whitney