At the heart of Superjumbo
Bangladeshi engineering scientist in US instrumental in inventing, designing advanced aerospace technologies
Rifat Ullah in front of the Airbus A380 before its test flight. He was on the test flight as technology designed by him and his company was used in the airliner. Photo: Collected
by Inam Ahmed
If you have ever had the opportunity to fly on the Airbus A380, the biggest jetliner in the world, nicknamed the Superjumbo, then you would love to know that the enormous engines, each producing around 70,000lbs of thrust, of these double-decker planes may contain a critical set of technologies invented by a Bangladesh-born scientist, Rift Ullah.
As a young boy, slender and inquisitive, he would lie on the roof of his home, looking up at the moon and wonder how men had reached that silvery heavenly body.
He had thumbed through the Time magazine’s coverage of the moon landing in July 1969 over and over again, and each time he was awestruck by the human feat. After all, the moon landing in 1969 continues to be a standard of achievement for human ingenuity.
Deep down in his heart, the boy believed he would one day build a rocket that would reach the skies defying gravity.
Forty years later, as Dr Rifat Ullah walks down the corridors of Pratt and Whitney (P&W) headquartered in Connecticut, one of the world’s three largest companies that makes propulsion engines for aircrafts and rockets, past his portrait hanging in P&W’s display hall in recognition of his extraordinary contributions to aeronautics and spaceships, he fondly recalled those dreams of his childhood.
The dreamer boy from Dhaka is today a top rocket scientist whose inventions are used by NASA. After graduating from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) as a mechanical engineer, he earned his PhD from Texas A&M University where he also accepted a teaching position before embarking on a career in aerospace to fulfil his childhood dreams.
And today, he has become an exceptional scientist in his own field with the rare experience of significant contributions to both the areas of aerospace, namely aeronautics (aircrafts) and astronautics (spacecrafts).
“I am an engineering scientist and apply engineering and scientific principles to invent, design and produce advanced aerospace technologies,” Rifat Ullah says.
At Pratt & Whitney (P&W) he has worked on the iconic Space Shuttle Main Engine. Before that, he worked as a rocket scientist at a company called Orbital Sciences, which is the largest maker of rockets in the US after NASA.
His inventions are used in Pratt and Whitney jet engines across the world.
His specialization is in the science of “Tribology”, specifically, as applied to sealing systems in rocket and jet engines. Tribology is the science of friction, wear and lubrication. These aerospace engines operate at tremendously high speeds, temperatures and pressures, and contain a wide variety of volatile liquids and gases that must remain separated at all times. Any unintended mixing of these fluids can result in emergency landing of an aircraft, and in rare cases the loss of an aircraft or a rocket.
Poorly performing sealing systems could result in passengers complaining of odor inside the aircraft cabin, since the air humans breathe inside the aircraft must first pass through the jet engine (the air does not come directly from the atmosphere outside the aircraft). Thus, the science of Tribology and sealing systems ensures safe and comfortable flights for humans.
RifatUllah today has 14 patented inventions with more in the pipeline and some of his inventions are classified in the breakthrough category. His inventions fly in thousands of aircraft engines worldwide that ensure safe and comfortable flights.
Complex sealing systems are dynamic and are vital for aircraft and rocket engines. Before his inventions, the aerospace sealing systems were not as dependable or as durable and required frequent change of engine parts.
During his work at Honeywell, a leading maker of small jet engines and avionics, headquartered in Arizona, he was among the first aerospace engineering scientists to obtain critical insights into the complex physics of dynamic sealing systems in aerospace engines. From those insights, many patented inventions followed from him and those are enabling jet engines perform better.
“Prior to my work, the understanding was not as clear and there were lots of costly and lengthy development trials to arrive at optimal solutions,” Rifat explains. “My work substantially reduces the number of development trials and provides superior solutions to difficult Tribological problems.”
His early inventions at Honeywell earned him that company’s very first Engineering Innovation Award, the highest technical honor at Honeywell.
For outstanding contributions to his field Rifat was appointed the Discipline Chief of Tribology and Sealing Systems at P&W. He has also been recognized as a “Fellow” at P&W, which is a title of distinction that recognizes an engineering scientist’s deep knowledge and contributions to their field.
Among the 36,000 employees at P&W, he is the only fellow and Discipline Chief in his field.
Rifat says he derived a lot of his inspiration from his father, the late Brig Gen Hedayet Ullah, a former director general of Health Services of Bangladesh.
He taught Rifat not to blindly follow others but to follow “our hearts, dreams, and passions.” Rifat said his father grew up in poverty in Dhaka overcoming many obstacles in life, yet, through sheer hard work and compassionate service rose to become the top health official in the country.
Rifat loves to pilot small aircrafts. He is also an accomplished painter. He believes that painting helps him blend art with science. He mentions Leonardo daVinci, who was a prolific engineering scientist and inventor of the renaissance period, but most people only know him for his art such as Mona Lisa. Rifat believes painting makes the two sides of his brain work in harmony, boosting creativity.
A loving family man, he believes that one of his main goals in life is to nurture a family with sound values. His lovely wife Seema Rifat Ullah is a finance graduate from Arizona State University who also loves to sing at Bangladeshi cultural functions in the US.
Their only son, Imran, is the center of their lives. Rifat believes that his top priority is to be the best father to his son who began his university studies this year.
Meanwhile, more challenges lie before Rifat and his P&W teams spread across the US, Canada and Europe, as the world continues to demand lower fuel burn, lower jet noise and lower emissions from jet engines.
“All this is required in the next generation of jet propulsion engines,” he mentions. “P&W is now getting ready to introduce the next generation of jet engines to the world and these jets have highly advanced sealing systems, so our inventions continue to evolve.” Many of his inventions are going to be in the next-gen engines.
Modern jet engines contain thousands of complex parts that must work flawlessly and cost millions of dollars each to make human flight possible.
So, the next time you settle down in the plush seat of a trans-Atlantic aircraft such as a Boeing Jumbo-jet, or the Airbus A380 Superjumbo, know that your journey will be safe because the enormous jet engines spinning at over 20,000 revolutions per minute, generating thousands of pounds of thrust are enabled probably by a critical technology invented by a Bangladeshi, which is keeping you safe in your journey 10,000 meters up in the air hurtling across the sky at around 900kph.