Flightpath to sustainable aircraft possible with $1.5M NASA grant

The Penn State Steady Thermal Aero Research Turbine Laboratory will explore smaller, more efficient gas turbine engine cores using 3D printing


By Erin Cassidy Hendrick

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In their latest effort to advance sustainability and decrease the carbon footprint of commercial aircrafts, researchers in Penn State’s Steady Thermal Aero Research Turbine Laboratory, known as the START Lab, received $1.5 million in funding from NASA through collaborations with Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies.

The agency created the program, Hybrid Thermally Efficient Core, or HyTEC, to accelerate the development and adoption of advanced gas turbines through smaller, more efficient engine cores. Gas turbine engines currently power almost all aircrafts by using fossil fuels. As a result, air travel accounts for between 2% and 2.5% of all global carbon emissions, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“The big picture is we want to make a significant impact reducing the carbon footprint of aviation,” said Karen A. Thole, distinguished professor of mechanical engineering and principal investigator of the project.

In collaboration with Pratt & Whitney, the three-year project will focus on reducing the size of the engine core for single-aisle planes, which could enable the adoption of hybrid-electric propulsion systems.

“Reducing the size of the core reduces the weight and it reduces the fuel needed to power it. It also allows for the introduction of electric batteries to bring in some additional power,” said Michael Barringer, associate research professor of mechanical engineering.

Thole explained that as the technology stands currently, batteries would be too heavy to solely power airplanes.

“The planes wouldn’t be able to get off the ground with batteries,” she said.

This is why the START Lab is pioneering the development of re-designed gas-powered engines to work in harmony with electric batteries. In this project, the researchers will focus on advanced cooling and aerodynamics to enable smaller engines.

The team will use additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, to test different turbine blade designs to further this goal. Thole explained that traditionally manufactured blades take about three years to create.

“With 3D printing, that timeline could shrink to three months,” said Scott Fishbone, the START Lab’s project manager.

“We want to create and test completely new and ambitious designs in a short time frame,” Thole said. “Using 3D printing, where Penn State has exceptional capabilities, is a huge opportunity to do so.”

The START Lab has been steadily incorporating 3D printing into its work for more than eight years. Researchers in the lab previously received funding from the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Lab and the Federal Aviation Administration Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise program to address these challenges.

“Our previous projects have really laid the groundwork for HyTEC,” said Reid Berdanier, assistant research professor of mechanical engineering, “We have the knowledge base and facilities to use the technology in turbine cooling and heat transfer.”

With this new funding from NASA, the START Lab will also train the next generation of undergraduate and graduate engineers who will enter industry and academia with the skills and mindset to positively impact the environment.

“We are making sure our future workforce is prepared to tackle these issues,” Thole said. “Our students will have the hands-on experience they need to be forward-thinking engineers who can create more sustainable aviation systems.”


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