Ceramic matrix composite components are taking off

GE is using ceramics matrix composites (CMC) in its next generation LEAP jet engines and other machines that burn fuel and handle enormous temperatures. Ceramics can withstand higher heat than even the most advanced alloys. They also don't need to be air-cooled and weigh one third that of metal components, opening the way for smaller and lighter jet engines.

"Going from nickel alloys to rotating ceramics inside the engine is the really big jump," says Jonathan Blank, lead researcher of CMC and advanced polymer matrix composite at GE Aviation. "CMCs allow for a revolutionary change in jet engine design."

CMCs are made from silicon carbide ceramic fibres locked inside a ceramic matrix and covered with a thermal barrier coating. Last year, GE Aviation opened the first CMCs factory and formed a joint venture with Italy's coatings maker Turbocoating to prepare for large-scale production of CMC parts.

The LEAP, which recently powered the next-generation Airbus A320neo on a test flight, uses static turbine 'shrouds' made from CMCs. But GE has already tested rotating parts made from the materials inside a jet engine turbine.

Although the engines are still being tested and they will not enter service until 2016, the company has received orders for 9,550 LEAPs valued at $134billion.

CMC applications don't stop with the LEAP. GE has spent $1bn on CMC research and is going to use the material inside powerful for fighter jet and helicopter engines, the GE9X – said to be the world's largest jet engine - and also the latest gas turbines and compressors.