UMaine jet engines sensor takes off

Posted Feb. 04, 2011, at 9:37 p.m.
A small jet engine equiped with a new state-of-the-art high-temperature sensor sits outside at the Maine Air National Guard base in Bangor on Friday waiting to be demonstrated for members of the media.
A small jet engine equiped with a new state-of-the-art high-temperature sensor sits outside at the Maine Air National Guard base in Bangor on Friday waiting to be demonstrated for members of the media.

BANGOR, Maine — University of Maine researchers have successfully propelled a 50-year-old jet engine into the 21st century by adding a thumb-size wireless sensor that has been in development for more than a decade.

With support and a little luck, that technology could become part of every jet engine built in the future, UMaine associate professor of electrical and computer engineering Mauricio Pereira da Cunha said Friday.

Da Cunha and a team of faculty, staff and student researchers at UM’s Laboratory for Surface Science & Technology have been developing the wireless, heat-resistant sensor, which allows maintenance workers to monitor temperature, pressure, corrosion and vibration inside an engine. It’s the first of its kind in the world, and its creators say it could revolutionize the jet engine maintenance industry.

Da Cunha said that now when an engine has problems, an engineer must disable the unit completely, which he pointed out is costly and often unnecessary. The new sensors would eliminate that need and reduce maintenance costs while improving engine efficiency, creating additional savings on fuel costs.

After testing the sensors in university labs for months, researchers recently partnered with the Maine Air National Guard base in Bangor to perform those tests in a more realistic setting. The partners held a joint press conference Friday at the Bangor base to announce their progress and demonstrate the field testing.

“We’re proud to be a partner with them,” said Col. John Thomas, commander of the Guard’s 101st Maintenance Group, which lent researchers a dormant jet turbine engine from a 1957 military jet to perform the tests. “We’re always looking for ways to improve efficiency, and we hope this pays dividends and creates some savings.”

The sensors are able to withstand temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, more than twice as hot as any previous wireless sensor. So far, the sensors have held up.

Robert Lad, professor of physics and da Cunha’s lead research partner, said the one-of-a-kind technology pushes the limits of engine performance and maintenance.

“We’ve never been able to put sensors directly inside the engines,” he said.

Further field testing of the sensors will help validate their long-term reliability and accuracy before they go to market, da Cunha said. The sensors already have tremendous market potential and da Cunha said the research is being closely watched by companies such as Pratt & Whitney, Rolls Royce, Honeywell, General Electric, NASA and several branches of the U.S. military.

In general, it would be much easier to apply the sensors to new engines than to incorporate them into existing engines, he said.

So far, the UMaine research has been funded by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army, as well as university and state grant funds. Two patents have been awarded and three more are pending.

The university also has received more than $3.6 million to date from the Wright-Patterson Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, to develop the technology for military and commercial use.

Finally, a new spinoff company, Environetix Technologies Corp., has formed at the Target Technology Incubator in Orono and employs several recent UMaine graduates.

“This has the potential to be a huge industry,” da Cunha said.

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