ARCHIVED - Longer life for aircraft engines

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July 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

One of the best ways to reduce maintenance costs for commercial and military aircraft is by developing superior coatings for engine components. Thanks to a successful partnership between NRC and Innovative Materials Technologies (IMT) Inc., the global aerospace industry will soon benefit from custom-designed coatings that can significantly extend the life of gas turbine engines.

"The aircraft users who rely on engine performance — like Canada's airlines or military — incur exorbitant costs and inconvenience when they have to refurbish engines sooner than expected," says NRC researcher Dr. Linruo Zhao. "Although engine components are designed to last a certain number of operating cycles or hours, they often fail prematurely because of erosion from sand, dust and other environmental debris. By reducing down-time, a high-performance coating will significantly reduce operational costs."

"Highly resistant coatings can significantly prolong the life of turbine blades, the most critical part of today's gas turbines," says Dr. John Rodgers (left) of Innovative Materials Technologies Inc. He enjoys a close collaboration with Dr. Linruo Zhao of NRC.

Dr. Zhao leads the Materials and Component Technologies Group at the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC-IAR). An expert in coatings for engine components, he has spent many years testing their hardness, corrosion resistance and other properties. In the late 1990s, NRC-IAR began designing and fabricating its own coatings for aerospace engine components. Dr. Zhao's team first used a magnetron sputtering system to create novel coatings, but later introduced a cathodic arc PVD (physical vapour deposition) system, which was better suited to their work.

For the past 10 years, Dr. Zhao has worked closely with Dr. John Rodgers, Chief Technology Officer for IMT. This Quebec-based firm specializes in advanced technologies to engineer new and improved materials and nanocoating processes. This collaboration has led to the coating technology that IMT has licensed from NRC-IAR — a technology the company will bring to market later this year.

Erosion-resistant coatings protect engine components from damage when debris is sucked into the engine by the fan and the rotating compressor parts. Erosion of the materials used in engine fan and compressor components can lead to catastrophic engine failure over time — a particularly acute problem for helicopters because they have to land in the cloud of debris generated by their own rotors.

NRC's partnership with Dr. Rodgers also extends to other frontiers of materials science. Dr. Rodgers has contributed his theoretical and computational expertise to help Dr. Zhao's team select which formulations could best deliver the required material properties. IMT uses its proprietary quantum mechanical tools and informatics methods to calculate the structure and properties of new materials or tailor those of existing materials.

"Our approach allows us to develop new materials for highly specific applications, with significantly reduced development times in the lab," says Dr. Rodgers. "In this partnership, I do the computational work to define new compositions, while Dr. Zhao and his team produce the coatings. We have complementary capabilities and the highest degree of trust in sharing our knowledge relating to this work."

Dr. Rodgers has tested four different formulations for erosion-resistant coatings for compressor blades, and his firm will concentrate on commercializing the two that rated the best. "Our coatings rate three to seven times better than conventional titanium-nitride coatings," he says. "Compared with uncoated substrates, our coatings showed up to a 70-fold improvement."

NRC-IAR's expertise was crucial in helping IMT get its nanolayered erosion protection coatings certified by Transport Canada and the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority — a necessary step before commercialization.

"This new coating technology could really put Canada at the forefront in this area of materials science," says Dr. Rodgers. "We already have a European gas turbine engine maker testing our coatings. Once the word gets out about their superior performance, we could see a lot of engine manufacturers and overhaul companies coming to us."

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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