START Lab Receives $5 Million DOE Agreement to Improve Turbine Efficiency for Power Generation


By Shea Bracken

Penn State’s Steady Thermal Aero Research Turbine (START) Laboratory has signed a six-year, $5 million agreement with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to continue work on improving turbine efficiencies.

Specifically, this project, which is a partnership between Penn State, DOE-NETL, and Pratt & Whitney, a division of United Technologies, will explore ways to cool gas turbine components with minimal cooling air to allow for higher operational temperatures and minimized aerodynamic losses.

Karen Thole, professor and department head of mechanical and nuclear engineering, is leading the project for Penn State. The proposal expands on the DOE-NETL Turbine Thermal Management Program, which ended in 2014. The ultimate goal of this project is to transition new cooling technologies into actual turbine hardware operating in a complex, rotating turbine environment.

Land-based gas turbines are heavily relied on for electricity generation in the United States and improved cooling technologies are critical for higher firing temperatures and increased efficiency in those turbines. More efficient turbine technology will result in lower cost, cleanly generated electricity.

“This tremendous partnership with DOE-NETL provides us the opportunity to research meaningful ways to reduce fuel costs and ensures we are educating the next workforce for the gas turbine industry,” Thole said.

Thole’s research group will experiment with cooling configurations in a test turbine with realistic engine hardware and flow conditions. The data they generate from the high speed, rotating conditions simulated in the START Lab test turbine will be directly compared with tests from three other distinct test environments: low-speed, low-pressure, low-temperature, static-condition facilities at the University of Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech, and the DOE-NETL’s high-speed, high-temperature, static-condition facility. This back-to-back comparison will provide data to guide the gas turbine industry in introducing these new cooling technologies into operating gas turbines.

“We are very excited about this test facility and working with the research team at Penn State and Pratt & Whitney,” said NETL Turbine Technology Manager Rich Dennis. “This world-class test facility will allow advanced airfoil cooling concepts and secondary turbine leakage to be better studied and understood. We believe that the R&D team and this test facility will allow new concepts for cooling and leakage control to be accelerated, leading to more efficient turbines.”

The test turbine housed in the continuous-duration START facility was designed by Pratt & Whitney to operate at conditions representative of modern gas turbine engines. The large compressors providing the flow were also supported through DOE-NETL’s Turbine Thermal Management Program. The test turbine and facility provide an ideal environment to evaluate new cooling technologies in a facility that can closely match a real-world turbine engine environment.

Funding for the START Laboratory originated with industry, government, and academia. The three partners were Pratt & Whitney, the DOE NETL, and Penn State. Pratt & Whitney continues to be a strong supporter of the START Lab and will be a member of the team conducting the DOE-NETL research.


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Shea Bracken

“This tremendous partnership with DOE-NETL provides us the opportunity to research meaningful ways to reduce fuel costs and ensures we are educating the next workforce for the gas turbine industry.”


Karen Thole



The Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Penn State is one of the nation’s largest and most successful engineering departments. We serve more than 1,000 undergraduate students and more than 330 graduate students

We offer B.S. degrees in mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering as well as resident (M.S., Ph.D.) and online (M.S., M.Eng.) graduate degrees in nuclear engineering and mechanical engineering. MNE's strength is in offering hands-on experience in highly relevant research areas, such as energy, homeland security, biomedical devices, and transportation systems.

Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering

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University Park, PA 16802-4400

Phone: 814-865-2519