Air travel has traditionally been a symbol of freedom and limitless potential. But in recent years its image has changed for the worse. Part of the blame for that, to be sure, sits squarely with the experience of modern airports and airlines--from the intrusive security checkpoints to the low-frills operations aboard the planes.
Some of the problem, however, is in the way airplanes and their engines interact with the world around us. Jets are loud enough to be considered nuisances to neighbors miles away from the airport. And their fuel consumption and carbon emissions have some people questioning whether air travel is even sustainable in the coming century.
Even without those sorts of concerns looming, Pratt & Whitney's introduction last year of its new commercial jet engine would have been remarkable. But the geared turbofan engine, which Pratt has been developing since the early 1990s, promises to be a game changer. It will significantly cut fuel use--by more than 12 percent--manifestly reduce jet engine noise and reduce [NO.sub.x] emissions by use of an advanced combustor design and reduced fuel consumption.
Gas turbine production is now a $30 billion industry, one that has been dominated, except for a stretch in the late 1990s, by commercial and military aviation. That trend continued in 2007, and exciting developments like Pratt's GTF suggest why. The game is constantly changing, but every year provides breakthroughs and landmarks.
In its 70-year history, the gas turbine has become one of society's most important and versatile energy-converting machines. And its impact can create a chain of energy conversion. Consider the Pentagon's recent award to Northrop Grumman and European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. of a $35 billion contract for the KC-45 refueling tanker aircraft, which has made international news. The contract winner gets a lucrative jet engine order to power 179 tankers, whose job is to transport and deliver fuel to other jet aircraft in flight. Jet fuel in a tank is relatively inert; fuel converted to power through a gas turbine is as kinetic a substance as you can find, and one that can create great wealth.
One way to gauge the influence of the gas turbine industry is to look at its recent financial history. Analyst Bill Schmalzer of Forecast International in Newtown, Conn., tapped his company's computer models and extensive data base to provide a look at the values of gas turbine manufacturing production from 1990 to 2007. (Value of production is a more accurate indicator than sales figures.) Trade journals usually report separately on the gas turbine aviation market (jet engines and turboprop engines for manned aircraft) and the gas turbine non-aviation market (electric power generation, mechanical drives, and marine ship power), but FI's values of production allow us to view the entire gas turbine picture. The total worldwide value of production for gas turbines for 2007 was $32.3 billion, compared to an average of $26.2 billion over the previous 18 years. The business is definitely growing.
In the $21.8 billion aviation market, nearly...