US puts $30 million toward 10X increase in power for venerable aircraft engines

While most of the military and some of the commercial aviation research has focused on building ever-faster, more advanced jet engines, little attention has been paid to developing the venerable turbine power plant.  But that's about to change, at least a little.  The Air Force today awarded a $30 million contract to Lockheed Martin to begin developing turbine engines that ultimately could be 10X faster than current variations.

The contract falls under what the Air Force call its Versatile Affordable Advanced Turbine Engines (VAATE) program that looks to bring turbine power technology into the future. For example, program goals in VAATE should provide a number of advancements including:

  • 200% increase in engine thrust-to-weight ratio
  • 25% reduction in engine fuel consumption
  • 60% reduction in engine development, procurement, and life cycle maintenance cost

The VAATE program is structured in three phases to achieve 4X performance by 2009, 6X performance by 2013 and 10X performance by 2017, the Air Force said. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics said while VAATE investments are directed primarily toward engines for military aircraft, components of the technology will be used in many commercial engine applications. Conversely, VAATE will pull from the commercial sector by leveraging NASA's work on noise and emissions so that DOD assets will be able to operate all over the world without exceeding civilian environmental and noise regulatory limitations, the AIAA stated.  The VAATE roadmap takes advantage of the fact that there are many areas where commercial and military engines need similar propulsion technologies.

According to the AIAA, VAATE technology will provide benefits to current commercial products, but also will aid the emergence of new and revolutionary air transport and access to space products. Recent successful demonstrations of sonic boom reduction technology may enable viable over-land supersonic commercial flights, leading to an entirely new market of premium air travel. Because of their high specific power requirements, the turbine engines needed to accomplish this mission will be derived from military engines and technologies developed under VAATE, AIAA stated.

While turbine engine requirements have increased considerably, the funding for new turbine engine research has been dramatically reduced, AIAA stated.

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