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October 22nd, 2009
Can R&D Save GE?
Most of the news out of GE these days is bad. If the stories aren't about the company's deeply screwed up credit subsidiary, they're about the uncertain future of the NBC Universal media and entertainment business. Now, with Comcast apparently on the verge of buying controlling interest in NBC Universal, the key to GE's future is coming into focus: It's the company's core industrial businesses—which make everything from nuclear power generators and locomotives to jet engines, wind turbines, refrigerators, and health care equipment. And, of course, light bulbs.
Fortunately for GE and its investors, CEO Jeff Immelt takes innovation in the core businesses very seriously. Since he took over as CEO from Jack Welch in 2001, he has tripled the annual output of patents and doubled the company's level of investment in overall R&D. That includes increasing the funding of basic scientific research at the labs from $315 million in 2001 to $555 million last year.
The science GE is working on is quite diverse, from nanotechnology and molecular imaging to organic electronics, sustainable energy, and energy conversion.
Another intriguing GE research project is in the nanotechnology sphere. Margaret Blohm, the advanced technology program leader for nanotechnology, is experimenting with using nano-materials to prevent ice from building up in jet engines. GE scientists adapted the idea from nature. They studied a lotus flower leaf to understand how the surface of the leaf repels water. Because of the leaf's unusual texture, the tension on the surface of the water droplet is not broken, so it slides off. GE scientists believe that if they can engineer a synthetic surface like this for jet engine parts and wind turbines, the force of the wind will prevent ice from sticking to the surface. That would mean they could make engines that are lighter, using less material and requiring less energy.
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