The future of aircrafts is in motion with the help of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their vision of tomorrow is of planes that are powered by an “ion drive”, instead of the moving parts and fuel we have now. Propellers and turbines will soon be a thing of the past, and we won’t rely on fossil fuels for transatlantic flights. Instead, we’ll travel on electroaerodynamic-powered planes that use solid-state propulsion.
A Long-Time Dream of Scientists
The advancements in aircraft technology were detailed in a paper published in the scientific journal Nature. The team, led by Steven Barrett, detailed their vision and how they created the electroaerodynamic-powered planes.
“[It] should be more like what you see in Star Trek,” he states in the video below, “with a kind of blue glow and something that silently glides through the air.” They aren’t the first ones to think about it in this way. Since the early 20th century, scientists have attempted to develop something similar—but the technology just wasn’t there yet. It’s due to time and proper advances in technology that Barrett and the team were able to make this long-held dream happen.
How Scientists Built the Plane
Scientists started to create the aircraft in 2016 and refined it until 2018. Their finished product is an airplane with a wingspan of 16 feet and a weight of 5.4 pounds. At first glance, it looks like a standard aircraft, but under the wings, there are a series of electrodes. They consist of very thin wire at the front and an array of aerofoils—a curved surface that produces lift—at the back. (You can find aerofoils on a regular wing.)
The wires that are at the front of the electrodes are set to positive 20,000 volts. This constitutes the source of ions; this is ionized nitrogen from the atmosphere. The aerofoils at the back are charged to negative 20,000 volts and creates an electric field. Barrett describes, “the ions go from the positive to the negative colliding all the way with neutral air molecules and creating this wind that goes behind the plane.” Essentially, this gives the aircraft thrust and allows it to move through the sky.
“The basic idea is that if you ionize air, which means removing an electron from it, you can accelerate the air with an electric field,” Barrett tells IFLScience. “Like the force you get if you rub a balloon on your head.”
Testing Their Creation
The MIT team tested their plane in a gym. At first, many things went wrong; there were structural failures and the electronics frying itself. But over the course of these 10 test flights, the plane successfully traveled about 200 feet in about 12 seconds with a “thrust efficiency” of about 2.6 percent.
This might sound low, but as the speed of a plane increases, so does its efficiency. Theoretically, if the MIT plane was traveling at 670 miles per hour, it is 50 percent effect.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
Although technology has come a long way since aircraft were invented, there is still a lot that needs to be developed before we see these electroaerodynamic-powered planes in the sky. But for the more immediate future, the system could power small drones—ridding them of their propellers.
“I don’t yet know whether you’ll see large aircraft carrying people any time soon,” Barrett says, “but obviously I’d be very excited if that was the case.”
Photo credits: Nature on YouTube