Welcome the first-ever, ion-drive aircraft

Engineers have built the first aircraft propelled by ionic wind and free of moving parts. The plane is completely silent and does not require powering from fossil fuel combustion, making it—once further developed—a potential alternative technology for flight.

Prototype of the ion-drive glider (credit: Springer Nature)

Prototype of the ion-drive glider (credit: Springer Nature)

The aircraft was designed and built over the course of 9 years by scientists and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Steve Barret, A/Prof of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and team leader of the project admits that he drew inspiration from the futuristic shuttlecrafts from the TV series Star Trek. “In the long-term future, planes shouldn’t have propellers and turbines. They should be more like the shuttles in ‘Star Trek,’ that have just a blue glow and silently glide,” he commented.

Rather than on propellers or turbines, this new aircraft relies on ionic wind or electroaerodynamic thrust for propulsion. The physical principle behind this technology was first identified in the 1920s and consists of a thrust that is produced when current is passed between a thin and a thick electrode—yet it was originally deemed to be too inefficient to power a large aircraft over a sustained flight.

Technological and design improvements allowed the MIT team to overcome some of the hindering inefficiencies. Their prototype resembles a large, lightweight glider weighing about 5 pounds (2.27 kg) and sporting a 5-meter wingspan. Thin wires are strung horizontally along the front end of the plane’s wing and act as positively charged electrodes, while similarly arranged thicker wires run along the back end of the plane’s wing and serve as negative electrodes. The fuselage holds the power supply which uses the output of a stack of lithium-polymer batteries to bias the wires at the front of the plane to a high voltage (40,000 V). At such high voltage the wires ionize—i.e. strip away negatively charged electrons from—the surrounding air molecules which are in turn attracted to the negatively charged electrodes at the back of the plane. As the cloud of ionized molecules flows toward the negatively charged wires, each ion collides millions of times with other air molecules, creating a thrust that propels the aircraft forward.

The team tested their plane prototype by flying it multiple times across the gymnasium in MIT’s duPont Athletic Center—the longest indoor space (60 m) they could find to perform their controlled experiments. They demonstrated that the plane produced enough ionic thrust to sustain flight for the entire length; they repeated the test flight ten times, with similar performance. “This was the simplest possible plane we could design that could prove the concept that an ion plane could fly,” Barrett says. “It’s still some way away from an aircraft that could perform a useful mission. It needs to be more efficient, fly for longer, and fly outside.”

Barrett’s team is currently working on producing more ionic wind with less voltage as well as on increasing thrust density—i.e. the amount of thrust generated per unit area. “It took a long time to get here,” Barrett says. “Going from the basic principle to something that actually flies was a long journey of characterizing the physics, then coming up with the design and making it work. Now the possibilities for this kind of propulsion system are viable.”

A video explaining the project can be found [here]

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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