General Electric Aviation will invest more than $200 million to construct two factories that will mass-produce silicon carbide (SiC) materials used to manufacture ceramic matrix composite components (CMCs) for jet engines and land-based gas turbines. The factories will be built adjacent to one another on 100 acres in Huntsville, Alabama.
One plant will produce silicon carbide (SiC) ceramic fiber; the other will use the SiC ceramic fiber to produce the unidirectional CMC tape necessary to fabricate CMC components.
The use of lightweight, heat-resistant CMCs in the hot section of GE jet engines is a breakthrough for the jet propulsion industry. CMCs comprise SiC ceramic fibers in a SiC matrix, enhanced by proprietary coatings.
Ultra-lightweight CMCs have one-third the density of metal alloys, greatly reducing the overall engine weight. Their high-temperature properties greatly enhance engine performance, durability and fuel economy. CMCs are far more heat resistant than metal alloys, hence requiring less cooling air in the engine’s hot section. By using this air instead in the engine flow path, an engine runs more efficiently.
The Hunstville plant will be the first in the United States to produce SiC ceramic fiber. Today, the only large-scale SiC ceramic fiber factory in the world is operated by NGS Advanced Fibers in Japan, a joint company of Nippon Carbon, GE and Safran of France. The plant will license fiber-producing technology from NGS Advanced Fibers. NGS is establishing a second factory in Japan to increase capacity to meet growing demand. The GE fiber plant in Huntsville will complement the growing capacity at NGS.
The SiC ceramic fibers plant is being supported by $21.9 million in funding from the US Air Force Research Lab Title III Office. Once the Huntsville plant is operational, it will sell fiber to the Department of Defense, GE businesses, Herakles (Safran) and other outside customers subject to US regulations.
The CMC tape plant is being financed solely by GE. The ceramic tape will be used by GE Aviation at its new CMC manufacturing site in Asheville, North Carolina, which opened in 2014. The Asheville facility fabricates CMC shrouds for the LEAP engine’s high-pressure turbine section.
Construction of the two plants will begin in mid-2016 and be complete by the first half of 2018. Production is slated to begin in 2018.