June 11, 2014

Supercomputers Boost Jet Engine Design

Tiffany Trader
jet fuel spray Sierra

The United States is home to many of the world’s top supercomputers, powerful machines that enable a wide-range of research efforts, from exploring the outer reaches of the universe to enabling faster, quieter and more efficient jet engines.

As revealed in a recent report, a group of GE engineers are working with researchers from Arizona State and Cornell universities to design and build better jet engines. The project has the benefit of some very powerful supercomputers: Sierra, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, as well as the world’s second most powerful computer, Titan, installed at Oak Ridge.

GE built the first jet engine in the US in 1941. Since then, the designs have grown ever more sophisticated. Madhu Pai, an engineer in the Computational Combustion Lab at GE Global Research, is focused on improving a key part of the engine, the fuel injector.

Fuel injectors have an intricate design and must withstand enormous heat and pressures. Injectors first atomize the fuel by forcibly pumping it through a small nozzle under high pressure. Then they spray the fuel into the combustion chamber where it burns, producing energy for propulsion.

“They are one of the most challenging parts to design and very expensive to produce,” Pai says.

Pai is part of the team that is using Titan and Sierra to examine the inside of a fuel injector. The combined computing power available to the project is equivalent to 10,000 computer processors operating simultaneously for over 9 months.

“The supercomputer gives us a microscopic view of the inside of the injector,” Pai says. “We can study the processes occurring in regions hidden behind the metal or where the fuel spray is too dense. This allows us to better understand the physics behind the design.”

Pai explains that even minor changes to fuel nozzle geometry can have a significant effect on engine performance. The ultimate goal of the project is increasing engine power and fuel-efficiency while reducing emissions. The simulations help the engineers understand how air and fuel mix and burn.

Aside from bolstering jet engine design, the researchers say the project could also benefit locomotives, land-based gas turbines, and healthcare also.