MIT engineers have built and flown the first-ever ionic wind-powered airplane with no moving parts.
Unlike turbine-powered planes, the aircraft does not depend on fossil fuels to fly. Moreover, the new design is completely silent as it does away with propellers, fans and turbine blades.
According to MIT associate professor Steven Barrett, the inspiration for the team’s ion plane comes partly from the movie and television series Star Trek, which he avidly watched as a kid.
Barrett was particularly drawn to the futuristic shuttlecrafts that effortlessly skimmed through the air, with seemingly no moving parts and hardly any noise or exhaust.
“This made me think, in the long-term future, planes shouldn’t have propellers and turbines,” Barrett says. “They should be more like the shuttles in ‘Star Trek,’ that have just a blue glow and silently glide.”
First identified in the 1920s, ionic wind – also known as electroaerodynamic thrust – can be described as a wind or thrust that is produced when a current is passed between a thin and a thick electrode.
If enough voltage is applied, the air in between the electrodes can produce enough thrust to propel a small aircraft.
MIT’s aircraft weighs about 5 pounds and has a 5-meter wingspan resembling that of a small glider.
It carries an array of thin wires, which are strung like horizontal fencing along and beneath the front end of the plane’s wing.
The wires act as positively charged electrodes, while similarly arranged thicker wires, running along the back end of the plane’s wing, serve as negative electrodes.
The fuselage of the plane holds a stack of lithium-polymer batteries. An indigenous power supply converts the batteries’ output to a sufficiently high voltage to propel the plane.
In this way, the batteries supply electricity at 40,000 volts to positively charge the wires via a lightweight power converter.
Once the wires are energized, they act to attract and strip away negatively charged electrons from the surrounding air molecules, like a giant magnet attracting iron filings.
The air molecules that are left behind are newly ionized, and are in turn attracted to the negatively charged electrodes at the back of the plane.
As the newly formed cloud of ions flows toward the negatively charged wires, each ion collides millions of times with other air molecules, creating a thrust that propels the aircraft forward.