The high-pressure turbine blades in a Trent 1000 passenger jet engine have to withstand temperatures far above the melting point of the nickel alloy from which they’re made. It’s a fiendish technical challenge for the engine’s British manufacturer, Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc — comparable to trying to stop an ice cube melting inside a kitchen oven on full blast.
The solution found by the company’s engineers was to blow cool air through tiny holes in the blades. Unfortunately, this clever approach has encountered some unexpected problems.
Boeing 787 aircraft operated by British Airways, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Virgin Atlantic and others have been grounded in recent months for inspections and repairs because the Trent 1000 engine blades have been degrading faster than anticipated. It’s the type of problem that’s becoming common in the industry as the demands placed on engines become ever greater.
The expense of dealing with these things is rising too. Last week, Rolls-Royce quantified the cost of fixing various Trent 1000 issues at 2.4 billion pounds ($3.1 billion), a cash outflow the debt-laden manufacturer can ill afford.
Few inventions have done more to transform our life over the past century than jet engines. They’ve let people travel faster and further, and they’re remarkably safe. Passenger fatalities like the one caused by a turbine failure on a Southwest Airlines flight last year are rare. Developed at enormous expense and using innovative new materials, the most recent “powerplants” (to use engines’ industry name) are comparatively quiet and fuel efficient.
Yet these innovations have taken the technology closer to its technical limits and reliability issues have crept in. “By pushing the envelope on thrust and efficiency, things have started to go wrong elsewhere in the system,” says Nick Cunningham at Agency Partners. This is worrying because companies are under pressure to build even more efficient propulsion systems to curb carbon emissions.
Rolls-Royce’s problems appear the most serious — some 40 787s powered by its engines are parked — but this is an industry-wide issue. Forced to ground planes and adjust flight schedules, airlines have resorted to leasing replacement aircraft and have told engine manufacturers to pay compensation.
In September Tim Clark, the boss of Emirates, said manufacturers are delivering aircraft that don’t do what was promised. “Give us airframes and engines that work from day one. If you can’t do it, don’t produce them,” he said. (end of excerpt)
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