New bearings from Texas A&M improve aircraft engines

November 13, 2003
| By: Aubrey Bloom

COLLEGE STATION -- Researchers at Texas A&M University have made a leap in aircraft engine technology with the development of high-temperature bearings that will allow engines to run more efficiently. "The bearings we've created provide answers to a hurdle for both military and commercial aircraft engines," said Alan Palazzolo, Texas A&M professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Vibration Control and Electromechanics Lab. "Other universities and companies have been trying to produce a system like this one for a long time." With collaborators at the NASA Glenn Research Center and the University of Toledo, Palazzolo and his research team were honored with a 2003 R&D 100 Award for the new bearings. Dubbed "the Oscars of invention," the awards annually showcase 100 of the best products and technologies from around the world. In current aircraft engines, the bearings that support the rotating parts of the engine can fail because of high temperatures. Because engines perform their best at higher temperatures, there is a need for bearings that can handle such conditions. This need has been met by Palazzolo and a team of Texas A&M students: Jason Preuss and Randy Tucker, master's students in the mechanical engineering department, and Andrew Hunt, a senior civil engineering major. The newly developed magnetic bearings support rotating shafts via a magnetic force and a feedback control system. This allows for noncontact support of the rotating shaft, which eliminates the friction associated with conventional bearings. "Our main contribution is the electromagnetic coils in the bearings that can withstand high amounts of heat, allowing aircraft engines to run at optimal levels," Hunt said. "It really all comes down to saving money." The savings result from elimination of the lubrication system, a reduction in friction and the ability of the bearings to operate at ultra-high temperatures. The bearings can operate at temperatures over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, far higher than the current maximum 400 degrees Fahrenheit. In the six-year development of the bearings, the team has received funding from the United States Navy and the University of Texas at Austin, in addition to lab sponsorship from NASA. "The funding allows us to bring more students into the research," Palazzolo said. "They provide creativity and persistence, and a lot of recognition should go to them. I'm mainly the coach." The sky is not the limit for these bearings, either. Other applications include the turbines that power land-based machinery, such as steel mills and petrochemical plants, which also operate better at higher temperatures. "There are also a lot of good commercial land-based uses for this technology," Preuss said. "It has the potential to increase efficiency as well as reduce maintenance costs for many types of turbomachinery."

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