NISKAYUNA — A chamber that simulates conditions at 35,000 feet is but one tiny step in the journey to electric or hybrid-electric air travel.
But it’s a step that needs to be taken before full-scale prototypes take to the sky since electricity behaves differently at high altitudes than it does on the ground.
At GE Research in Niskayuna, researchers are attempting this and other steps toward a future where electricity generation uses less carbon or none at all.
Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm on Friday toured several Capital Region sites that will help move the United States toward the green-energy goals shared by the Biden administration and the Democratic leaders of many states, not least of them New York.
Points of interest included:
- The Port of Albany, where a factory will be built to fabricate towers for the wind farms planned off the New York coast;
- The New York Independent System Operator, which runs the power grid that must be upgraded to handle the additional electricity needed if Americans are to burn less carbon-based fuel;
- Hudson Valley Community College, one of the places that will train workers for the growing field;
- And the world headquarters of General Electric’s research and development efforts, where experts in unrelated fields come together to undertake projects that require broad-based knowledge.
Granholm, accompanied by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, saw some of the work in progress on these GE team projects.
GE is a frequent participant in federal research, working as lead or subcontractor for agencies including the Department of Defense, NASA, the National Institutes of Health and — on 61 projects currently — Granholm’s Department of Energy.
Energy- and carbon-focused projects include floating offshore wind farms for areas that are too deep for towers anchored to the seabed, technology to capture carbon from the air, replacement of carbon fuel with hydrogen, wind turbine blades that are lighter and less labor-intensive to fabricate, and superconducting generators that will allow offshore wind turbines to produce upward of 25% more power per unit.
GE Research hopes to begin construction of the first full-scale prototype of this new generator design within a year in Building 273 in Schenectady, where it now makes turbines and generators for gas-burning systems. It incorporates superconducting magnets derived from MRI machines and superconducting wires that don’t rely on rare earth elements.
GE Aviation recently won the bulk of a $250 million NASA contract to develop a hybrid-electric aircraft. The prototype of the plane itself won’t be built in Niskayuna, but GE Research is working there on some of the electrical components that will make the prototype fly.
The challenge is scale, said Satish Prabhakaran, GE Research’s technology leader for aviation electric propulsion. A large plane may need 10 megawatts of power, but the batteries and generation equipment that currently exist are far too heavy and bulky to pack into a plane that’s going to carry people or cargo.
A 10-fold improvement in power-to-weight ratio over current technology is needed for the small plane and an improvement of perhaps 100-fold will be needed to get a large electric plane airborne.
It’s a significant challenge, akin to some of the great advances in flight achieved in the 20th century.
And it will be in steps, Prabhakaran said.
“I would say 1 megawatt first,” he said.
“We’re building a turboprop aircraft, and the idea is that we want a 1-megawatt scale power grid. Converting a large aircraft to all-electric might have to happen with a combination with a green fuel like green hydrogen coming together with electric.”
He’s convinced that large-scale electric flight will be a reality within his lifetime.
“History will always push you to do the next best thing,” he said.