Heard on Campus: Alan Epstein on the future of aircraft engines

“There is as much improvement and efficiency to be gotten out of a gas turbine engine in the future as we’ve gotten since the introduction of the jet aircraft. I don’t necessarily know how to get there, but I know that the laws of nature say it’s there for me to get. The efficiency is still far from theoretical limits.”

-- Alan Epstein, vice president of technology and environment for aircraft engine maker Pratt & Whitney, presented a 2016 Air Products Distinguished Lecture on Nov. 29 in Reber Building on Penn State's University Park campus. Sponsored by the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, the four-part speaker series is funded by Air Products.

Epstein’s lecture, titled “The Future of Commercial Aviation Propulsion,” covered the history and future of commercial aircraft engines and the forces that will determine what they may be like over the next several decades, including economics, environmental impact, regulation, public perception and technology.

Presented to about 100 engineering faculty and students, the lecture emphasized the technical challenges of propulsion and possible solutions. Epstein’s conclusion right now is that while new and alternative technologies like electric power and fuel cells are interesting, the only plausible solution for furthering commercial air travel by the masses is to continue improving gas turbine engines.

The talk closed with an assessment of basic research needs for the next 20 years, including the need for material that can withstand very high temperatures, new ideas about engine design and, perhaps most importantly, a new generation of engineers to discover solutions.

Epstein is responsible for setting the direction and coordinating technology as applied to product performance and sustainability across Pratt & Whitney. He provides strategic leadership in the investment, development and incorporation of technologies that reduce the environmental impact of the company’s worldwide products and services. Prior to joining Pratt & Whitney, Epstein was the R.C. Maclaurin Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and currently holds an appointment there as professor emeritus. Epstein has won many international awards for gas turbine technology. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He received his bachelor of science, master of science, and doctoral degrees from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics. Learn more at www.pw.utc.com and on Twitter @prattandwhitney.

Last Updated December 01, 2016