May 7, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:09 pm

Pratt's engine future: Pancakes on biofuel

Alan Epstein, vice president for technology and environment at East Hartford aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, said the company’s next generation of engine must be even more eco-conscious, creating a pancake-like design for the propulsion systems of the future.

The future of East Hartford aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney seems golden.

Its geared turbofan engine is the talk of the aviation industry and the company is projecting $325 billion or so over the next two decades from its latest generation of the commercial jet engine.

But in an industry where project cycles are measured in decades, the company is already planning an engine encore.

That encore? Pancakes.

Pratt has been hailed for its so-called game-changing technology in the geared turbofan engine, an environmentally-friendly, noise-reducing, fuel-saving propulsion system slated for use on four different types of jets.

The $13.4 billion company has a backlog of more than 2,600 orders for its four versions of the geared turbofan — also called the PurePower engine — and none of the four has reached the production phase yet. The company expects $325 billion in total revenue over the life of the program.

"Everything we have been asserting in the marketplace has been validated in testing," said Pratt President David Hess. "We continue to get phenomenal results from the air and ground tests."

But the life of the program will expire sometime between 2025 and 2035, and given the nearly two decade development cycle of the PurePower, the company needs to start thinking about the next generation soon.

"This is our success du jour," said Alan Epstein, Pratt vice president of technology and environment. "We are heroes of the moment."

As the head of Pratt's advanced technology, Epstein thinks about the company's next move long before managers take a concept and start developing a product with a budget.

"I'm worried about what's the engine to replace the GTF and the one after that," Epstein said.

The aerospace company has until 2025 or 2030 before it will need the next generation of engines for narrowbody planes such as the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320.

Pratt's engines of the future will be much wider in diameter in the front but much shorter in the back. In essence, they will become more pancake-like, Epstein said. That shape significantly reduces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

The future's engines will need fewer blades, as has been the trend with each generation of Pratt engines.

They will need to be more fuel-efficient. The PurePower offers a 16 percent fuel burn improvement over the best performing engine currently on the market. The next generation will need to yield another 10-15 percent improvement over the geared turbofan, Epstein said.

The fuel-saving and noise-reduction benefits will play a major role in all the following generations of Pratt engines, Epstein said. As vice president for technology and environment, Epstein's time is split between looking for product improvements and dealing with regulators as well as determining the proper balance between suppliers' environmental impact and cost.

"The concern for the environment will shape our product future," Epstein said.

Pratt's future engines all will be capable of burning biofuel the same as burning jet fuel, just like the PurePower engine does now.

The U.S. aerospace industry uses nearly 23 billion gallons of jet fuel annually. While biofuel is produced for jet engines, it comes in a very limited amount and is used only in demonstrations.

The biggest impediment to wider use of biofuel is lack of production and infrastructure to transport it to the aerospace industry, Epstein said.

The best possibility right now is a plant called camelina, which is grown in large enough quantities in the U.S. to count for up to 2 percent of total aviation fuel use, Epstein said.

Biofuel technology needs to improve, and growers need to find a way to increase the yield per acre, Epstein said. Pratt has invested in biofuel development, but the industry really needs large-scale financial institutions to throw strong support behind the concepts.

"We are bullish on biofuel," Epstein said. "It is the future. It is the only way aviation is going to significantly reduce its CO2 emissions."

Hess predicts Pratt will grow by leaps and bounds thanks to the large number of orders for the PurePower, its large share of military engines thanks to its contract for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and increases in other business divisions such as its commercial power systems and turboprop engines.

By 2020, Hess wants Pratt's revenues to exceed $25 billion — nearly double 2011's sales.

"We've really positioned this business well for long-term growth," Hess said.

Pratt is a subsidiary of Hartford conglomerate United Technologies Corp., which had $56 billion in revenue in 2011.

Based on the $1 billion spent over two decades to develop the geared turbofan, the company will need to commit similar time and resources to find success again in the next generation, Epstein said.

Luckily, the company and the industry are up for the challenge, Epstein said. Given the proper time and resources, those in aerospace will meet their goals of delivering an even better product.

"We are used to delivering," Epstein said.


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