Flying the polluted skies - exceedingly high air pollution levels are causing mechanical failures in commercial-plane turbines

While air pollution is often unseen, it’s having a visible, corrosive effect on some commercial plane engines.

June 6, 2019 Kelsey D.
Flying the polluted skies - exceedingly high air pollution levels are causing mechanical failures in commercial-plane turbines
The Boeing 787 planes (pictured above) commonly used at-risk Trent 1000 turbines. (Photo credit: Bill Abbott)

Rolls Royce’s 2016 aerospace turbine, the Trent 1000, used in popular commercial planes such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, is cracking as a result of unanticipatedly high sulphur oxide levels.

Dominic Horwood, Rolls-Royce civil aerospace chief customer officer, spoke to the problems at a recent media event, explaining that the issue (which he stressed was only present in the Trent 1000 model) is a result of sulphurization of the nickel alloy which makes up the IPT blades. It’s believed that temperatures within the turbine and the applied chemical coatings may have further exacerbated this issue.

As a result of the sulphurization, affected planes may experience turbulence, temperature increases and cracking in the blade itself. The issue is thought to be of most danger to planes flying regularly in Asia, where sulphur dioxide air pollution levels may be relatively high.

Unscheduled groundings of these planes alone have cost Rolls Royce $570 million+ USD in losses. According to Horwood, it is the “the single most important issue” facing the company today.

map of Alberta Canada air pollution
Isolated image of the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 turbine (Photo credit: The Engineer)

Rolls Royce maintains that the problem was previously unforeseen, due to the test bed environment - which occurred in an enclosed building. Howard explains that the Company is taking time to learn from these mistakes, and shares, “we are already applying that learning in our Ultrafan future technology program.”

A new test-bed, Rolls-Royce’s largest ever, is being built on the Derby civil aerospace campus - and will be used for the next generations of the Trent 1000.

Kelsey D.

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