Achievements come in all shapes and sizes, mini to massive.When the Wright brothers took flight in 1903, it was a massive achievement. Would you know, their flying machine cruised at an altitude of 10 feet for less than 30 seconds!
Today, approximately 26,906 commercial planes will take flight, cruising at altitudes above 33,000 feet for hours on end. Worldwide, over 10 million flights will land safely this year. Outside of technology in the cockpit, advancements in gas turbine engines cannot be understated. Massive achievements happening there! Media attention (if given at all) tends to get taken up by large manufacturers like GE Aviation, Honeywell, and Pratt & Whitney. Customers of theirs demand smaller engines that burn at increasingly higher temperatures. None of this would be possible without the mini-sized achievements in alloys happening along the way.
Proprietary blends of metals
Briefly going back before we move forward, a series of World Wars lit a fire underneath engine manufacturers to get better. Even prior to that, Special Metals, a subsidiary of Precision Castparts (NYSE:PCP.DL) was testing its NIMONIC brand of alloys on advanced engine prototypes. Commercial aviation for passengers and cargo didn't start taking off until after the wars. Peace and love was in the air, so military planes were put to work for civilian needs.
By the 1960's, GE Aviation's newest jet engines were forcing alloys like A286, NIMONIC, and Rene 41 past their limits. A proprietary blend of metals (nickel alloy) by the name of Alloy 718 was a mini-sized achievement. Solving General Electric's (NYSE:GE) heat and fabrication problems, Alloy 718 quickly became most popular within the aerospace industry, allowing for the manufacturers to produce lower-cost, higher-performing engines. Even today, Pratt & Whitney uses it [Alloy 718] more frequently than any other nickel alloy. It accounts for more than 50% of the superalloy content in some engines.
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From an eight mile high perspective, 34,000 airplanes or $6.9 trillion worth could be built over the next 20 years. Massive companies like Airbus, Boeing, GE Aviation, Honeywell, and Pratt & Whitney (to name a handful) are first in line for the $6.9 trillion. If you like the aerospace industry and natural gas burning engines in general, don't overlook names like Allegheny Technologies (NYSE:ATI), Carpenter Technology, Haynes International, and Precision Castparts. Without their mini-sized contributions in alloys over the last half century air travel as we know it wouldn't be possible.
As you can see, alloys play an important role throughout. Materials that can't take the heat of 1,200 plus degrees Fahrenheit will be forced out of the kitchen (engine).
Reaching beyond infinity
SpaceX, the first commercial company to successfully reach the International Space Station, uses INCONEL in the engine manifold of its Merlin rocket engine. INCONEL is a proprietary blend of nickel-chromium from Precision Castparts. To give you a mini-taste of what it can do, INCONEL 625 services all temperatures ranging from cryogenic to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
GEnx is GE's next generation turbofan and will be the workhorse engine of the 21st century for medium-capacity, long-range aircraft, part of GE's ecomagination product portfolio. GEnx is the first commercial aircraft engine to use titanium aluminide (TiAI) blades, GE4822 alloy. Researchers from the European Space Agency (ESA) estimate one million jet turbine blades will be made in the next eight years using TiAI; it will reduce engine weight by 45%. GE also developed Rene65, a nickel-based superalloy in combination with its long-term partner Alegheny Technologies. Niobium-silicide is another blend GE is working on for use in ultra-high temperature situations.
Lockheed Martin is evaluating beryllium-free alloys for use in the F-35 Lightning II. Carpenter Technologies has over 200 proprietary metal blends for buyers to choose from. ACUBE 100, a non-magnetic cobalt-based alloy, happens to be beryllium free. Handling beryllium can be toxic, so that's a good thing.
High-performance alloys and high performance engines are like two peas in a pod. One could exist without the other, but why would they want to?