Magazine article National Defense

Air Force Launches Competition for Revolutionary Turbine Engine

Magazine article National Defense

Air Force Launches Competition for Revolutionary Turbine Engine

Article excerpt

* The Air Force is hoping that a prize contest will yield a revolutionary new engine that doubles the fuel efficiency of current systems.

The $2 million Air Force prize will go to the first team that is able to build a new turbine engine that meets the service's specifications, said Air Force Lt. Col. Aaron Tucker, program manager of the prize.

"We want to energize research into topics that support the Air Force mission, and turbine engines provide power in a lightweight, low profile package for airborne systems," he said at an Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Atlanta in May. "A prize excites and motivates talented people."

The new engine must be big enough to power a medium-sized drone but more cost-effective than larger power plants, he said. A full list of criteria can be found on the contest website at www.airforceprize.com.

Registration opened in May. As of press time, none of the participants' engines had reached the verification testing stage, which is slated to take place at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Tucker said $2 million is the largest monetary prize ever offered by one of the military services. The contest was inspired in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's robotics competition, which used prize money to motivate civilian engineering teams to build cutting edge robots that could perform disaster response missions.

The engine contest is being administered by the Air Force Research Laboratory, which has a mission of developing technologies to boost U.S. airpower.

The AFRL has laid out challenging criteria for participants. The turbine engine must be in the 100 horsepower class, with a 2.0 brake-horsepower per pound (bhp/lb) or better power to weight ratio. It is also required to have a brake-horsepower specific fuel consumption of 0.55 pounds per brake-horsepower per hour (lb/bhp/hr) or less at maximum continuous power. Those standards would double the fuel efficiency of existing turbine engines of that class. The new engine would weigh a fraction of piston engines in the 100 horsepower class and have 10 times the life span, according to the Air Force.

"With this prize they're trying to get inventors to develop a turbine engine that has the power density of a turbine and good power to weight [ratio] and... also has the specific fuel consumption of a piston engine. So in a sense they want a jet engine that gets better gas mileage," said Mike Heil, president and CEO of the Ohio Aerospace Institute and former director of the Air Force Research Laboratory's propulsion directorate.

The AFRL wants the best of both engine worlds. William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said the service wants to hit the "sweet spot" between the capabilities of turbine and piston engines. "It's something that doesn't exist right now, this class of engine," he said in July at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C-based think tank.

Jets can generate more power than piston engines, but they are less fuel efficient. "That's why you don't see many turbine-powered automobiles because their gas mileage would not be very good," Heil said.

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A key requirement for the new engine is that it must run on standard Jet A fuel.

"The other problem with piston engines is they require gasoline. ... The Air Force and the military want to only deal with only one fuel when they're deployed and operating--and that is Jet A jet fuel. So they want to get away from having to carry a secondary fuel with them," Heil explained.

Tucker noted that relying on aviation gasoline in addition to jet fuel is "one of the major drivers of the specific logistical [tail] in combat operations, and we'd really like to remove that requirement."

To succeed, engineers must improve performance when it comes to SWAP--size, weight and power. …

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