Bets on Ceramic Jet-Engine Parts Material Offers Airlines Promise of Reduced Maintenance and Fuel Costs

On Monday, GE Aviation plans to announce that it will build a factory in Asheville, N.C., that will produce engine parts made out of ceramic matrix composites, which combine silicon carbide and ceramic resin.
 Small-scale production of one part will begin early next year. The world’s largest maker of jet engines plans to start testing a broader range of ceramic-matrix parts in the upgraded engine for Boeing Co.’s BA +1.40% next-generation 777 wide-body airplane. Engine makers are competing to provide airlines with fuel savings, increased thrust and lower cost. GE is putting its money on advanced composite materials that promise to be more durable and weigh less than those made from the typical nickel and titanium metal alloys. The idea is to reduce maintenance costs for airlines and cut fuel consumption by lowering the weight of the engine

Ceramic matrix composites have been considered as a new material for jet engines for decades. But the material has been dogged by cost concerns and worries about fragility.

GE’s chief rival for single-aisle aircraft business, United Technologies Corp.’sUTX +0.44% Pratt & Whitney, has not embraced ceramic composites in the same way and instead is focused on a new engine design to achieve the same result.

The “geared turbofan engine” that Pratt is developing and testing uses a gear that allows for a bigger front fan that is expected to bring better performance.GE says it has developed new coatings and processing techniques that can overcome concerns about the durability of ceramic composites. The company aims to expand the use of composite parts in its engines to 50% from 10% now. Most composites are carbon fiber and used in the so-called cold parts of the engine—away from where the fuel is burned. The new variety of ceramic matrix composites will be used in the hot section.

Early next year the Asheville factory will begin work on a stationary part, known as a turbine shroud, in the hottest section of the jet engine. The parts will be used in the new Leap engine that GE makes with Safran SA SAF.FR +1.71% of France for the Boeing 737 and Airbus 320neo. Airbus is a unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. EAD.FR +1.12%

The Leap engine will come into service in 2016, and GE plans to deliver 1,200 of the engines in 2017. The company then plans to increase the number of parts made out of ceramic matrix composites in the “hot” section to as many as nine, GE Aviation manufacturing executive Mike Kauffman said.

“We see this growing into other stationary components, and are even doing developments on rotating parts like turbine blades,” Mr. Kauffman said.GE has been working on the materials for two decades. In recent years, it set up a development center in Delaware and acquired a venture that produces a key raw material, silicon carbide.

Write to Kate Linebaugh at

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