General Electric (NYSE:GE) recently announced an investment of $125 million in a facility that will manufacture jet-engine parts from a new ceramic material, called ceramic matrix composites (CMC).  This advanced ceramic material, which weighs a third of metal alloys that are currently used in jet-engines, will be the key to achieving improved fuel efficiency in the next generation of GE’s jet-engines.
In today’s highly competitive aviation industry, aircraft manufacturers like Boeing (NYSE:BA), Airbus, Bombardier and Embraer are expecting jet-engine manufacturers to come up with more fuel-efficient engines for their next generation of airplanes.
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GE competes with Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies (NYSE:UTX), for leadership in the global jet-engine market. This market is expected to witness strong growth over the next two decades, driven by the increasing demand for air travel from the emerging markets, and the replacement demand from mature markets like North America and western Europe.
GE Lowers Engine Weight To Improve Fuel Efficiency
GE produced the advanced, light-weight ceramic material back in the early 1990s. Over the last couple of decades, it has worked to improve the toughness of this material, as ceramics could withstand high temperatures, but would break easily on impact. Using silicon carbide fibers, GE has made this light ceramic material as tough as metals. It has now tested this material for around one million hours, including 15,000 hours in ground-based gas turbines that are generating electricity. 
Jet-engine parts made from this light-weight ceramic material reduce the overall engine weight not only through their own weight savings, but also by eliminating the need for certain other heavy parts. For example, a ceramic turbine blade does not require a heavy central disc or bearings unlike the metal alloy turbine blades. Thus, usage of multiple ceramic parts like turbine blades and shrouds, combustor liners and fairings inside the jet-engine, achieves significant weight savings to improve fuel efficiency.
Additionally, these advanced ceramic materials can withstand temperatures of up to 2,400F, much higher than what the metal alloys which are currently used in jet-engines can.  This allows for higher processing temperatures inside the jet-engine, which enhances efficiency to generate further cost savings.
GE is introducing these ceramic parts in CFM International’s (a JV between GE and Snecma of France) LEAP engines, which will power the next generation of narrow-body airplanes like Boeing 737MAX, Airbus A320neo and Comac C919. At the 2013 Paris Air Show, June 19, CFM International received its latest order worth $8.6 billion, involving 128 LEAP engines from AirAsia. Including this order, CFM International has received orders for more than 4,500 LEAP jet-engines.  The primary reason behind this impressive order tally is the high fuel efficiency offered by these engines, which is driven by the usage of light-weight ceramic parts in their design.
GE will also introduce these advanced ceramic materials in its GE9X engine, which has been selected by Boeing to power the upgraded 777 – 777X.
Pratt & Whitney Introduces Gear To Improve Fuel Efficiency
On the other hand, Pratt & Whitney has worked along a different path to develop more fuel efficient jet-engines. It has introduced a gear between the engine’s front fan and turbine shaft. This gear allows the turbine shaft to rotate at higher speeds, compared to the front fan, which increases the amount of air that blows past the engine to enhance thrust and fuel-efficiency. Pratt & Whitney has received more than 3,500 orders for this engine, which it says is 10-15% more fuel-efficient than existing engines on regional and single-aisle aircraft.  (See Pratt & Whitney’s More Fuel Efficient PurePower Engines Support Its Positive Outlook)Notes:
- New GE advanced ceramic manufacturing plant for next-gen of jet-engine parts, June 17 2013, www.ge.com [↩]
- GE’s 2012 10-K, February 26 2013, www.ge.com [↩]
- New ceramic material is set to revolutionize aviation starting with the LEAP engine, July 5 2012, www.ge.com [↩] [↩]
- Next gen LEAP engine orders soar at the Paris Air Show, June 19 2013, www.ge.com [↩]
- UTC’s investor and analyst meet, March 14 2013, www.utc.com [↩]