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Case study:
Preserving aircraft engine fan blades

Aircraft engine fan blades

The University of Manchester’s research in advanced materials is having a significant impact on a wide range of sectors, including nuclear energy, oil and gas, aerospace, airport security, biomedical materials, manufacturing and defence.

It also produces wider benefits by transferring this knowledge and understanding into medical and life sciences, cultural heritage, palaeontology and food technology, as well as training future engineers and scientists in the use of leading imaging techniques.

A major impact has been through our development of new techniques for the 3D imaging of structures and defects in materials, and mapping the state of stress, microstructure and damage in engineering materials and components.

Professors Nancy Rothwell, Phil Withers, Peter Lee and Colin Bailey with the Queen’s Anniversary Prize
Professors Nancy Rothwell, Phil Withers, Peter Lee and Colin Bailey with the Queen’s Anniversary Prize

Coupled with this is the University’s knowledge and expertise to develop reliable models based on these imaging results to introduce life-extending treatments and to accelerate the safe adoption of new manufacturing processes.

To date the University has supported a wide network of 90 companies and 35 institutions recently receiving the Queens Anniversary Award. One such company is Power Systems giant Rolls-Royce.

Working with researchers in the School of Materials, Rolls-Royce have developed and introduced a new process to ensure the safe operating life of aircraft engine fan blades.

Fan blades suffer large loads and high frequency vibrations. Over time these stresses can create microscopic cracks in the blades which could eventually cause potentially catastrophic and life threatening engine failure.

Researchers from the School of Materials, led by Professor Phil Withers, analysed the potential of the new process ‘laser shock peening’ (LSP) to strengthen blades. Using penetrating synchrotron X-ray beams they discovered that it generates deep compressive stresses which remain stable under the fatigue loading of air travel.  These compressive stresses can stop the growth of any microscopic cracks.

Engineers inspect aircraft engine fan blades
Engineers inspect aircraft engine fan blades

Rolls-Royce has adopted LSP to treat its Trent 800, Trent 500, Trent 1,000 and XWB engines. It has sold more than 1,200 of its latest XWB engines – worth over £60 billion in total.

In addition, the Metal Improvement Company (MIC), contracted by Rolls-Royce to carry out LSP treatment, has received training and expert support from our research team. MIC employs 30 people in the UK and works for Rolls-Royce’s Singapore plant, which produces 6,000 blades annually.

And as part of our partnership with Rolls-Royce, we established a Materials Testing and Analysis Unit to routinely ensure the treated fan blade components are sufficiently compressively stressed, work integral to Rolls-Royce’s quality assurance and contributing to Civil Aviation Authority accreditation of Trent aero-engines.

So the next time you fly and look out the window remember the part we play in making sure you arrive safely.

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