Serendipitous discovery could increase efficiency in jet engines, reduce plane noise, more. (Getty Images)
Karaman, while working on a NASA project with UTRC and colleagues, began this research to address a specific problem: controlling the clearance, or space, between turbine blades and the turbine case in a jet engine. A jet engine is most fuel-efficient when the gap between the turbine blades and the case is minimized. However, this clearance has to have a fair margin to deal with peculiar operating conditions. HTSMAs incorporated into the turbine case could allow the maintenance of the minimum clearance across all flight regimes, thereby improving thrust specific fuel consumption.
Another important potential application of HTSMAs is the reduction of noise from airplanes as they come in to an airport. Planes with larger exhaust nozzles are quieter, but less efficient in the air. HTSMAs could automatically change the size of the core exhaust nozzle depending on whether the plane is in flight or is landing. Such a change, triggered by the temperatures associated with these modes of operation, could allow both more efficient operation while in the air and quieter conditions at touchdown.
A new area of research
Karaman and his colleagues decided to try increasing the operating temperatures of HTSMAs by applying principles from another new class of materials, high-entropy alloys, which are composed of four or more elements mixed together in roughly equal amounts. The team created materials composed of four or more elements known to form shape-memory alloys (nickel, titanium, hafnium, zirconium and palladium), but purposefully omitted gold or platinum.
“When we mixed these elements in equal proportions we found that the resulting materials could work at temperatures well over 500 degrees C—one worked at 700 degrees C—without gold or platinum. That’s a discovery,” said Karaman. “It was also unexpected because the literature suggested otherwise.”
How do the new materials work? Karaman said they have ideas on how they operate at such high temperatures, but do not have solid theories yet. To that end, future work includes trying to understand what is happening at the atomic scale by conducting computer simulations. The researchers also aim to explore ways to improve the materials’ properties even further. Karaman notes, however, that many other questions remain.
“That’s why I believe this could open a completely new area of research,” he said. “While we will continue our own efforts, we are excited that others will now join us so that together we can push the boundaries of science.”
This joint project between UTRC and Texas A&M was funded by the NASA Leading Edge Aeronautics Research initiative.
This article by Elizabeth Thomson originally appeared on the College of Engineering website.