GE Aviation is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first jet engine to certify with composite fan blades. Powering an early model of Boeing’s 777 aircraft, the first GE90 engine certified in February 1995 marked the first use of the composite fibre polymeric material on a jet engine’s front fan blade.
Back in the 1980’s GE Aviation experimented with composite fan blades on its GE36 open rotor jet engine that successfully ground-tested and flew. This encouraged GE to use composite fan blades for the GE90 engine, which required a lightweight, durable material solution for the engine’s large front fan.
The company’s bet on composite fan blades for the GE90 has paid off. For one, the composite blade is critical to the GE90’s record thrust. With more than 2,000 GE90 engines delivered, the composite fan blade has become a landmark technology for GE and has influenced succeeding generations of GE commercial engines, including the GEnx and the new GE9X.
But achieving certification of that first composite fan blade was no easy feat, one of the biggest hurdles for the blade was understanding the characteristics of the new carbon fibre material. GE conducted hundreds of intensive tests on the new composite material to determine its breaking points.
For certification, GE worked closely with Boeing, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and customers to educate them on the attributes of carbon fibre composite material. To manufacture the composites blade, GE teamed up with Snecma of France to create CFAN in 1993 located in San Marcos, Texas
CFAN has perfected the production process for composite fan blades, at the start of production, the yield rate for composite fan blade was less than 30%. Today, CFAN has a yield of greater than 97%, and the business has doubled its fan blade production in the last five years from 5,000 blades in 2009 to 14,000 fan blades last year.
For the 128-inch fan diameter on the latest GE90–115B for the Boeing 777–300ER, 777–200LR and the 777 Freighter, GE designed a second-generation composite fan blade using three-dimensional aerodynamic computer design tools. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York recognised the uniquely curved design of the GE90–115B composite fan blade as a work of art, and the fan blade is part of MOMA’s Architecture and Design collection.
The next-generation GE90 engine, the GE9X, will feature fewer and thinner composite fan blades than any GE widebody engine in service. To do this, the company is designing a new composite fan blade using next-generation carbon fibre composite material. The engine will have just 16 fan blades on its 134 inch front fan. The fewer, thinner blades will enhance the engine’s airflow and make for a lighter, more efficient fan that will help with the overall performance and fuel burn.