Scientists have taken a major step towards creating an aircraft of the future, one powered by an ion drive rather than using moving parts and fuel like conventional aircraft.
In a paper published today in Nature, a team led by Steven Barrett from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) described how they created a so-called electroaerodynamic-powered plane, one that uses solid-state propulsion, meaning no propellers or jet engines with expendable fuel.
“The future of flight shouldn’t be things with propellers and turbines,” Barrett says in the video below. “[It] should be more like what you see in Star Trek, with a kind of blue glow and something that silently glides through the air.”
This breakthrough has not been possible before because our technology simply wasn’t advanced enough. As far back as 1921, scientists have been unsuccessful in trying to develop something similar, once mistaken for anti-gravity technology. But now the team say that key technology advances have enabled this to happen.
In their tests from 2016 to 2018, they created an aircraft with a wingspan of 5 meters (16 feet) that weighed 2.45 kilograms (5.4 pounds). It has a number of thin electrodes running across its wings, and at the front of these are thin wires, while at the back is an aerofoil – a curved surface to produce the lift, like on a regular plane wing.
The thin wires at the front are charged to positive 20,000 volts, while the aerofoil at the back is charged to negative 20,000 volts, creating a strong electric field. At the front, electrons are removed from nitrogen molecules in the air to produce ions. And as these accelerate to the back, they produce an ionic wind, which gives the plane thrust.
“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 told IFLScience. “Like the force you get if you rub a balloon on your head.”