Distinguished professor testifies before Congress on sustainable aviation

Mechanical engineering department head Karen A. Thole, a leading expert on gas turbines, detailed pathways to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions through the development of next generation aircraft


By Erin Cassidy Hendrick

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a leading expert in gas turbine technology, Karen A. Thole, distinguished professor and mechanical engineering department head at Penn State, provided testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives on March 24, highlighting a pathway for sustainable aviation.

“In my opinion, the U.S. needs to invest in new aircraft architectures that take advantage of turbo-electric and hybrid electric propulsion systems,” she said.

Thole addressed the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, a subset of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, virtually. In her written testimony, she stated that commercial aircraft, powered by gas turbines, are responsible for between 2% and 2.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions, with 90% emitted from large single‐aisle and twin‐aisle airplanes.

“Heavy investments are needed now to support ongoing research efforts and the education of a new workforce equipped with the latest technological tools to advance the U.S. aviation industry so that it will be sustainable and competitive,” Thole said.

She explained the development of hybrid-electric engines for commercial aircraft may be within reach for select aircraft. Thole and a team of researchers from Penn State, Georgia Tech and Howard University are currently reimagining these engines, designing and shrinking the gas engine core to work in tandem with an electric battery, through an $8 million grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

As a researcher, Thole has secured more than $35 million in funding, written 280 peer-reviewed publications and been awarded six patents. In the Steady Thermal Aero Research Turbine (START) Laboratory, she focuses on convective heat transfer to develop new cooling designs for harsh, high temperature environments to increase the energy of efficiency needed in power-producing energy systems, such as gas turbines.

Thole was a co-chair on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study committee, commissioned by NASA, to develop a national research agenda for reducing CO2 emissions produced by commercial aviation. Based on the committee’s 2016 report, seven chief technology officers from leading aviation manufacturers pledged to reduce CO2 by 50% by 2050.

The congressional committee also heard testimony from R. John Hansman Jr., T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology International Center for Air Transportation, and Steve Csonka, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative.

Thole’s full testimony is available here.


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Megan Lakatos