GE Research’s work on decarbonizing air travel cited as aiding climate goals

General Electric’s Satish Prabhakaran gives a presentation on hybrid electric flight research at GE Research’s headquarters in Niskayuna on Wednesday. Watching are U.S. Reps. Paul Tonko of New York and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania.
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General Electric’s Satish Prabhakaran gives a presentation on hybrid electric flight research at GE Research’s headquarters in Niskayuna on Wednesday. Watching are U.S. Reps. Paul Tonko of New York and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania.

NISKAYUNA — The new wave of federal climate- and energy-related funding is expected to benefit some of the work being done at GE Research on cleaner next-generation technology.

Technology leaders at the Niskayuna headquarters of GE Research provided an update Wednesday on their work on the potential future of aviation during a tour by two members of Congress who helped push through the Inflation Reduction Act, with its hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change. 

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, chairs the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, and U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pennsylvania, chairs the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science.

Tonko is a regular guest at GE Research but it was Cartwright’s first visit. Both came away impressed about the work being done in areas such as hybrid-electric aircraft propulsion and hydrogen-fueled engines to move people from place to place without creating pollution.

“There’s going to be a revolution in the way people get around in the air over the next 10 or 15 years and you’re going to see that revolution right here in Schenectady,” Cartwright said.

Tonko, long an advocate of taxpayer investment in technology development, said the type of public-private partnership in play at GE Research is indispensable for restoring and maintaining the U.S. leadership position in innovation.

“You come here and you see all these aspects of work that are related to the work we’re doing in D.C. with policy and budgeting that is providing the resources in part to get this done, to strengthen that partnership with GE in a public-private concept,” Tonko said. “This is how we’re going to make it happen.”

Some aspects of the research have been underway for a decade, and some have moved into advanced testing.

General Electric last month announced it had successfully completed the first-ever test of a megawatt-class hybrid electric aircraft propulsion system at simulated altitudes of up to 45,000 feet in NASA’s Sandusky, Ohio, facility.

Mohamed Ali, vice president and general manager of engineering for GE Aerospace, joined Wednesday’s tour at GE Research.

“2025 — we’re going to be flying the world’s first hybrid electric,” he said.

Tonko said reducing carbon emissions and accelerating new technology across many sectors, not just transportation, is a goal of multiple rounds of federal spending, from the infrastructure bill last autumn to the computer chip legislation earlier this summer to the inflation act signed by President Biden this week.

“These packages have tremendous incentives for research, for all sorts of development that will come,” Tonko said. They will boost employment, as well, he added. 

He acknowledged the possibility that the midterm elections may shift power in the House or Senate or both to people who don’t share the same climate change goals, or don’t approach them the same way, and don’t support the same research funding.

“This is the earth-shattering stuff that these bills are going to promote,” Tonko said. “It would be terrible if we slow this down.”

General Electric is only one piece of the matrix of public agencies and private companies researching all the aspects of alternative flight technologies.

Satish Prabhakaran, GE Research’s technology leader for aviation electric propulsion, discussed hydrogen fuel as an example.

Hydrogen generated by green methods — without creating carbon emissions — could be a non-polluting alternative to traditional petroleum-based aviation fuel.

But it needs to be used in its more dense liquid form, rather than as a gas. Which requires a chilled and pressurized tank. Which boosts the aircraft weight, which is potentially a dealbreaker.

So developing a new generation of fuel tanks is a prerequisite, Prabhakaran said. The tradeoff of weight for strength and function in the fuel tank, and the potentially resulting need to cut weight elsewhere, speaks to the need to approach non-polluting flight as a holistic development of entire systems rather than a single revolutionary component.

“It’s going to take a combination of new technologies, smarter aircraft management and new fuels,” Prabhakaran said. “New fuels is a big piece of decarbonizing the aviation sector.”

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