GE & NASA Successfully Test Hybrid Electric System For High-Altitude Planes

GE demonstrated breakthroughs in hybrid electric flight and hydrogen-powered aircraft at the Farnborough Airshow, after a four-year break. One highlight: GE and NASA announced the successful test of high-power, high-voltage hybrid electric aircraft engine components at high-altitude conditions.

A megawatt-class GE a motor/generator electrically powering an 11-foot diameter propeller on a test stand. Image credit: GE Aviation.

It’s been four years since aviation fans, industry executives, aerospace engineers and investors last descended on the local airport in Farnborough, a quiet town about an hour southwest of London. Normally, the Farnborough International Airshow takes place every two years, alternating with the Paris Air Show. Together, they are the focal point for the aerospace industry. The pandemic disrupted this rhythm, but this summer, the Farnborough show was back on track.

Farnborough allows aviation watchers to take stock of the latest developments in the industry. Airlines come here to purchase new planes and engines for their fleets. Aircraft builders unveil their new plans, and engine-makers, like GE, display the latest technologies, including exciting announcements involving the future of hybrid electric flight.

Electric cars have become common, but building a commercial electric plane is a different story. Just ask Mohamed Ali, vice president for engineering at GE Aerospace. “Electric motors behave very differently at altitudes above 10,000 feet,” he says. “They are susceptible to plasma arcing, for example, and much more difficult to manage.”

But Ali has some good news for the industry. Speaking at the Farnborough International Airshow in England last week, Ali, together with NASA, announced they have become the first to successfully test high-power, high-voltage hybrid electric aircraft engine components at high-altitude conditions. The technology GE is advancing “will help make hybrid electric flight a reality for everyday commercial air travel, and it should have a real and necessary impact on the carbon emissions associated with flying,” Ali says.

Specifically, GE and NASA ran a megawatt-class, multi-kilovolt hybrid electric system in conditions simulating altitudes up to 45,000 feet. One megawatt could supply the equivalent of more than 600 U.S. houses. “This proves that we are altitude ready,” Ali says. “Next is to prove that we are flight ready.”

The test took place at NEAT — NASA’s Electric Aircraft Testbed facility — the only facility currently capable of simulating high-electric and high-altitude conditions that’s also large enough to fit an electric powertrain. “NEAT is the only testing location capable of simultaneously providing both high electric power and high-altitude conditions in an area large enough to fit an entire electric powertrain — it’s truly one of a kind in the world,” says NASA’s Tim McCartney, director of aeronautics at the Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland.

GE has spent years developing the power system, building on its expertise in electric motors and generators, power converters, power transmissions and power control systems.

Testing of GE’s hybrid electric propulsion system will continue as part of NASA’s Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD) project.

Next, GE will partner with Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences to test the system in the air on a Saab 340B plane using GE’s CT7 engines. Bryan Yutko, vice president and chief engineer for sustainability and future mobility at Boeing, called the completed test “an important, foundational achievement.”

Single-aisle planes could make up 70% of the world’s rapidly growing commercial aviation fleet in the near future. With aviation accounting for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, hybrid electric propulsion technologies could help bring the number down.

Hybrid electric technology is also compatible with sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen, and with new efficient engine designs like the open-fan concept.

In other exciting news from the air show, CFM International – a 50-50 joint company between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines – and Airbus announced an agreement to flight-test the open fan propulsion system being developed under the Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engine (RISE) program on the A380. The RISE program was launched last year, and its work contributes to helping the aerospace industry achieve net-zero emissions and flight.

Around the mid-2020s, the team plans to mount the engine on a modified Airbus 380 for flight testing, with the goal of placing a hydrogen-powered passenger plane into service about 10 years later. Such a plane would produce zero CO2 emissions during flight.

Throughout the Farnborough Airshow, GE joined industry leaders to address other pressing topics, including sustainable aviation fuel, flight efficiency, and next-generation engines – all areas in which GE continues to lead.

GE has been coming to Farnborough since it first opened its gates in 1948, and we invite you to check out GE Reports for more from this year’s airshow.

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