New technologies, from advanced propellers and flight management systems to software focused on optimizing routes to reduce fuel use, are changing the way we fly. Perhaps the biggest change of all is about to hit the skies as electric and hybrid electric flight become everyday realities for commercial, private, and military fliers.
These advances are making air travel more comfortable and more sustainable. But they also make it much more power intensive. Onboard power systems have always been complex, and now they’re being asked to deliver higher loads, more efficiently, than ever before. It’s a challenge that keeps the people in GE Aerospace’s Electrical Power Systems business on their toes.
“It’s critical that we develop electrical infrastructure on airplanes to deal with these bigger power loads,” says Joe Krisciunas, the business’s Dayton, Ohio–based president and general manager. After all, what good is the most groundbreaking avionics device — or a breakthrough hybrid electric engine — without a reliable electrical power system that can support it throughout a flight?
“We provide the smart grid for an aircraft,” he says, referencing the complex earthbound networks that help electric utilities generate and transmit power while also monitoring usage, using digital technology to manage loads and distribution channels in real time, for maximum efficiency.
As aviation goes more electric, aircraft will require more onboard power not only for avionics but for thrust and propulsion. Electric propulsion comes with power needs that are “orders of magnitude higher — more than one hundred times the power that the rest of the airframe uses,” says Krisciunas. “To do that, you’re going to need a much bigger electrical system.”
Of course, things are a little trickier at altitude, where there’s no backup: The only grid a plane can rely on is the one it carries on board. “An aircraft has to have its own electrical grid infrastructure,” he says. “It needs to generate electricity, convert it, and distribute it to where it’s needed, and it needs to do it all safely and reliably.”
Working with high voltage at high altitudes comes with unique safety challenges. At ground level, for example, air provides some degree of insulation between wires. But air is thinner miles above the earth, so additional insulation, and more space between wires, becomes important to prevent arcing. Krisciunas and his team plan accordingly as they design distribution and control systems, while also working to keep things compact.
And then there’s the issue of weight reduction — another guiding tenet in the industry — which becomes more and more difficult as an electrical system’s performance demands increase. For that, the engineers depend on components like GE’s modular power tiles, lightweight and flexible power distribution components that eliminate the need for hundreds of mechanical circuit breakers. The silicon carbide (SiC) transistors developed at GE Research, in Niskayuna, New York, also make huge leaps forward possible. “Silicon carbide has been a critical enabler to what we do,” says Krisciunas. “It allows us to create high-voltage power systems that are lighter than others.” SiC transistors can also withstand higher temperature ranges and higher power levels than traditional silicon-based transistors.
The work done by GE Aerospace’s Electrical Power Systems is critical to the larger sustainability goals of GE Aerospace as well, among them the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions from the use of sold products. “We are continually advancing the technology that will enable the higher-power electrical systems we need to be carbon neutral by 2050,” says Krisciunas.
Partnering with GE Aerospace’s Engines division, the Electrical Power Systems team has been integral in GE’s five-year, $260 million investment in developing a megawatt-class hybrid electric propulsion system with NASA. “This partnership is key to combining our power expertise that the systems team brings with the engines expertise that our engines team brings toward a hybrid electric system. We are uniquely set up for integration,” he says. “The initial testing of the hybrid system was done in our lab, on the campus of the University of Dayton — a great collaboration between industry and academia.”
Whether they’ll next work on electrical systems that provide configuration flexibility for business jets, fuel-efficient propulsion for commercial airplanes, or advanced capabilities for military aviation projects, one thing is a constant for Krisciunas: “We’re going to continue to launch products that push the state of the art.”