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Rethinking the Jet Engine

by Richard T. Stuebi

Since their discovery and invention in the early 1940s, jet engines have experienced dramatic improvements in thrust, reliability, emissions and efficiency. However, the basic turbofan engine design has remained largely unchanged since the late 1960s, when they were developed to enable the emergence of wide-body passenger jets. As the design has matured, the improvements have become more incremental.

As reported in the September 4 issue of The Economist, a start-up firm called R-Jet Engineering is exploring a pretty significant departure from the conventional turbofan. R-Jet is pioneering the use of an orbiting combustion nozzle (OCN), wherein the combustion process in the center of the engine occurs in rotating vortex, rather than in a straight line, as it flows through the engine. R-Jet claims that this combustion approach would reduce fuel burn by at least 25%, and reduce emissions by about 75%.

From an environmental standpoint, it would be great to see this kind of improvement spread widely throughout the aviation market, as it represents one of the fastest growing segments of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. However, don’t expect to see this OCN-jet technology under a wing anytime soon. In addition to the normal technology development hurdles that any company faces in commercializing a new technology, a huge challenge for R-Jet will be gaining customer adoption.

It’s essentially impossible for a venture like R-Jet to sell directly to aircraft manufacturers like Boeing (NYSE: BA) or Airbus – they are too risk-averse to use an unproven technology critical to their product’s saleability from a company with such a small balance sheet.

So, R-Jet will probably need to partner with, sell through, or sell to jet engine manufacturers with sufficient wherewithal and brand to back a breakthrough innovation to aircraft manufacturers – and there are really only three: General Electric (NYSE: GE), Pratt & Whitney of United Technologies (NYSE: UTX), and Rolls-Royce (LSE: RR). In turn, these companies will present significant challenges for R-Jet – first in paying attention to them and taking them seriously (i.e., the “not-invented-here” syndrome), secondly in working at the speed an entrepreneurial venture requires to stay afloat, and lastly exerting so much relative muscle that the corporation captures most of the value.

This is a common problem facing the cleantech innovation sector. In energy, the industry is massive, the products/technologies are typically very capital intensive, and most of the key players (potential customers, research collaborators or channel partners) are correspondingly huge corporations. It is not easy for small ventures like R-Jet – as shown conclusively by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma to be the type of company much more likely to develop disruptive technologies than big incumbents – to succeed in such an ecosystem.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.