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Intelligent Machines

Souped-Up Jet Engine

The most powerful jet engine ever may help Boeing beat back European rival Airbus.

Sometime this coming spring, airline passengers will be propelled aloft by a jet engine that sets a new record as the world’s most powerful. Packing some 52,000 kilograms of thrust-enough that just two engines could carry 365 passengers in a beefed-up Boeing 777 halfway around the world-the $21 million mammoth engine from General Electric is 22 percent more powerful than the previous-generation GE engine.

It’s designed to help Boeing beat back rival Airbus, the European aircraft consortium. In 2006, Toulouse, France-based Airbus is expected to begin delivering a new jet called the A380, which can carry 555 passengers. This superjumbo jet is presenting a serious threat to the Boeing 747 jumbo jet. As part of its response (see “Boeing’s Flight for Survival,” TR September 2003), Chicago-based Boeing decided to soup up its 777 to carry more weight and fly farther-even the 16,700 kilometers of the world’s longest route, from Singapore to Los Angeles. But because the 777 has two engines, compared to the A380’s four, it needs more power per engine to carry so much weight over such distances.

Chaker Chahrour, general manager of the program to develop the new engine at GE Aircraft Engines in Cincinnati, OH, says GE enlarged and increased the efficiency of an existing GE engine by adding new sculpted contours to its fan blades, which are made of lightweight composite materials. The new blade scoops up more air and increases pressure inside the engine, which adds thrust.

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Increased size helps, too: the blade assembly is 325 centimeters in diameter, almost the same diameter as the entire fuselage of a Boeing 737. To prevent dangerous imbalances should a blade shear off in flight, GE engineers designed a way for the fan to disconnect from the main shaft so it would stop spinning in seconds. (The remaining engine can still fly the plane for five and a half hours, long enough to reach a landing field even if the failure occurs mid-Pacific.)

The first people to enjoy the new engine will likely be Airbus’s own neighbors: Boeing expects to deliver its first 777 with the new engines to none other than Air France.

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