Turbines turn on British white heat of technology

July 5, 1996

Materials scientists in Cambridge and Wales are designing high-performance materials that could give British aeroengine makers the edge over competitors abroad.

Project leader Colin Humphreys of Cambridge University says the research will be based on "revolutionary" computer modelling to improve aeroengine materials and design new ones, particularly for use as turbine blades and discs.

The development of aerospace materials from concept to application typically takes ten years. But Professor Humphreys said computer models "will reduce the conventional need for laboratory-based, trial and error testing of new alloys. This will cut the time taken to bring them to the market and the cost of development programmes".

Computer advances are a key factor: "Work stations are now 100 times more powerful than six years ago," he said.

The Pounds 3.3 million project was announced last week as one of the successful bids under the Government's Foresight Challenge Award scheme. Some Pounds 1.9 million of funding is being provided by big companies, including Rolls Royce Aerospace and Industrial Power, GEC-Alsthom and British Steel.

The companies are hoping that work by the team of scientists at Cambridge, University of Wales, Swansea and Daresbury Laboratory will result in new materials for turbine blades so that they can operate at much higher temperatures than is currently possible.

Conventional turbine blades operate at around 1,050 degrees centigrade. The long-term aim is to develop materials that can withstand 1,500 degree centigrade. This will improve engine thrust and efficiency dramatically. Fuel consumption and the levels of noxious emission will be reduced.

The researchers also want to use computer modelling techniques to design thermal barrier coatings and oxidation resistance coatings for engine parts heavily exposed to high temperatures.

The industrial pay-off could be huge. The aerospace industry is one of the top three exporters producing a Pounds 2-3 billion per annum trade surplus, a Pounds 10.5 billion turnover and employing 130,000 people. But British market share fell from 13 per cent in 1980 to 9 per cent.

Professor Humphreys who is based at Cambridge's department of materials science and metallurgy, said: "This project aims to give clear world leadership to UK manufactured aeroengines. " The research also aims to transfer aerospace materials technology and design to electric power generating plant. Conventional power plants are constructed using alloys of iron and in Europe typically operate at 565 degree centigrade.

"We would like to replace iron-alloy turbine blades for instance with high temperature nickel-base alloys used in aerospace. These should be capable of operating at 750 degree centigrade," said Professor Humphreys.

Such a rise in operating temperature should help raise the efficiency of power plants from 40 per cent to 60 per cent: "This would result in a large reduction in the cost of energy and environmental pollution as well as huge savings of fuel," he said.

With world demand for electric power predicted to rise by a staggering 65 per cent in the next 15 years, the research could lead to big export market opportunities for British power plant design, engineering and construction.

Much of the predicted increase in electricity demand is in Asia, particularly China and India which have plentiful supplies of coal readily available.

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