May 2002

Dr. Christopher Dellacorte
Oil-Free Turbo Machinery Technical Leader
Glenn Research Center

Dr. Christopher Dellacorte is the Oil-Free Turbo Machinery Technical Leader in the Tribology & Surface Science Branch of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH. Currently, he is developing new aircraft engines using oil-free turbo engine technology.

NASA Tech Briefs: How does oil-free turbine engine technology work, and how will it be applied?

Dr. Christopher Dellacorte: We are taking aircraft engines and gas turbines, and we're taking the oil out of them, and replacing the oil-lubricated ball bearings with air-lubricated ball bearings. Oil has temperature limitations because it burns at a few hundred degrees, but air never burns, so we can run red-hot bearings and significantly reduce the weight. We can also improve the ability to run at very high speeds. We're developing new aircraft engines that are going to be much more efficient than current engines

NTB: Do you anticipate this becoming mainstream technology?

Dellacorte: That's our intent. What we're doing now is extending the existing technology to bigger, more powerful systems because the bearing technology itself is an industry-owned technology ? there are companies that do these kinds of bearings. Bearings are used in small electrical generators and in small compressors for aircraft cabin pressurization and air conditioning so that passengers don't have to breathe any oil that might leak past seals on an airplane. We've been using bearings for 30 years, but the technology and industry has improved to the point where we think we can use them on a small business jet engine, and that's the project that we're currently working on.

We expect to run the jet engine in about three years and then we're going to move to bigger jet engines. The innovation here in the government is that we do the high-temperature solid lubricant coatings that make the bearings work during start and shut down at high temperatures. The government does the project management and the integration, we do the materials development, and we let industry do the bearings.

NTB: Have you partnered with private companies or government offices to develop this technology?

Dellacorte: On our current oil-free business jet engine project we're partnering with Mohawk Innovative Technology in Albany, NY, and with Williams International in Walled Lake, MI. We anticipate doing a regional jet-class engine or supersonic business jet-class engine with many of the U.S. engine companies. The government owns a patent on a coating technology that we develop that makes the bearings work at high temperatures. We have two licensees that do the coating technology. So, in addition to Williams and Mohawk, we are also working with two companies: Advanced Materials Products in Twinsburg, OH, and Hohman Plating and Manufacturing in Dayton, OH.

NTB: What do you hope to gain out of the partnership with universities?

We've had grant activities with St. Louis University, Case Western Reserve, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Penn State University. The purposes of our grant activities in general are to educate students in this technology area so they can go to work for companies in this technology field. It's a multi-faceted government-run activity. We realize that the companies need to get new employees that know how to do the technology because they can't train all their own people. We're making an investment in the universities so that students graduate and can work in this new field.

NTB: Is there an expected timeline for the development and application of this technology?

The bearing technology is 50 years old and saw its first commercial use about 30 years ago in cabin pressurization compressors for aircraft. The technology kind of stalled there for decades until there was a recent industry doubling of the bearing load capacity that occurred about ten years ago. In 1999, in a previous project that was teaming up with a turbo charger company and Mohawk Innovative, we build the world's first oil-free turbo charger for a truck engine. A turbo charger looks a lot like a jet engine but it doesn't have an internal combustor. So we developed the world's first turbo charger in 1999 and now we're working on the world's first business jet engine, which we anticipate running in 2004.

NTB: Do you envision any other applications for oil free turbo engine technology?

This technology could be applicable on microturbines, fuel cell air supply compressors, rocket engine fuel pumps, turbo chargers, and auxiliary power units which are power generators on airplanes that generate power to run the engine on the ground and provide air conditioning and electricity needed to take off. Those are the main applications, in addition to aircraft engines.

After 2004, which is when we're going to demonstrate the first small business jet engine, we are going to get started on bigger engines ? what we call regional class engines. The regional jet is a new phenomenon that tries to get people to hop airports that are a few hundred or thousand miles apart. We are working to develop a regional jet engine demonstration project and we hope to demonstrate the first engines in 2007.

We're trying to demonstrate to the industrial people that this technology can work; we're not trying to build a commercial product when we demonstrate a turbo charger or demonstrate and engine. We're trying to show them the path so, using their own money, they can then develop commercial versions.


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