An airfoil manufacturing technology that could improve the performance of a wide range of next-generation natural gas turbines has been commercialized through research sponsored by the Department of Energy.

Orlando, Fla.–based Siemens Energy Inc., which licensed the technology in 2011, last month opened a new facility in Charlottesville, Va., employing Mikro Systems patented Tomo-Lithographic Molding (TOMO) manufacturing technology to manufacture airfoil ceramic cores for gas turbine blades and vanes. “It provides us with a game changing enabling technology to further boost our current world record for combined cycle efficiency of almost 61 percent to even higher levels,” said Randy Zwirn, president and CEO of Siemens Energy Inc. Through retrofitting, the new technology can also be applied for improving the efficiency of power plants already in operation.

According to the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), TOMO is a manufacturing platform that enables rapid, cost-effective development and production of high-performance products made from metals, ceramics, polymers, and composite material systems. Applied to gas turbines, it enables more sophisticated airfoil designs with improved cooling characteristics, which leads to higher operating temperatures and improved efficiency.

Gas turbines used to produce power for industrial, utility, and aerospace applications consist sequentially of compressor, combustor, and turbine sections. “Incoming air is compressed to high pressure in the compressor section, and then heated to high temperature by the combustion of fuel in the combustor section. The high-temperature, high-pressure gas is then expanded through a series of rotor-mounted airfoils in the turbine section, converting the energy of the gas into mechanical work. Improved airfoils can tolerate higher gas temperatures and/or use less cooling air, resulting in improved energy efficiency,” NETL explains.

Mikro Systems received Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funds, managed by NETL, to apply its TOMO technology to a range of turbine components. "In addition to enabling designs that were previously impossible to manufacture, the technology promises to reduce time-to-market for future design enhancements through reduced production lead times and more efficient manufacturing processes," NETL says.

Mikro Systems is looking to apply its technology to a wide range of applications, including integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) and natural gas combined cycle power plants as well as smaller industrial and military aviation engines. Rolls-Royce and the U.S. Department of Defense, among others, are now funding work by Mikro Systems.

The technology is also contributing to Siemens Energy’s ARRA-funded, NETL-managed project to develop hydrogen turbines for coal-based IGCC power generation that will improve efficiency, reduce emissions, lower costs, and allow for carbon capture and storage.

Sources: POWERnews, NETL, Mikro