Remember that day when fiction movies are far from reality? Those days are gone, as futuristic films appear to have slowly coming to life. A team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), creates a no-fuel aircraft that uses “ion thrusters” just like what we see on Star Trek.
According to an article from Nature, a group of MIT scientists led by Steven Barrett created an electro-aerodynamic-powered plane, which unlike conventional aircraft, doesn’t need fuel, propellers or jet engines to fly. An ion drive and solid-state propulsion power this plane of the future.
Barrett says, “the future of flight shouldn’t be things with propellers and turbines.”
“[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,” he added.
Due to today’s technology, this aircraft mechanism is now possible. Although, as early as 1921, scientists have been trying to develop a similar plane. However, due to lack of technology, it was simply infeasible. The similar aircrafts created back then was even mistaken for anti-gravity technology.
Today’s no-fuel plane took two years in testing. From 2016 to 2018, the scientists created an aircraft with 5-meter-long wings and weighs 2.45 kilograms. The aircraft has thin wires at the front and electrodes flowing in its wings. At the back of the plane is an aerofoil, a similar curved surface as with conventional aircraft that cause the lift.
The plane’s strong electric filed comes from the thin wires charged to positive 20,000 volts, and the aerofoil charged to negative 20,000 volts. At the front of the plane, the air produces ions by removing electrons from nitrogen molecules. When the ions move from the front to the back, it generates an ionic wind that causes the plane thrust.
According to Barrett’s statement with IFLScience, “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.”
“Like the force you get if you rub a balloon on your head,” he added.
The plane had ten flights which flew about 60 meters (200 feet) in 12 seconds in a gym hired by the scientists. The aircraft’s thrust efficiency is 2.6 percent. However, as the plane’s speed increases, the thrust efficiency increases as well. We could say that at 670 miles per hour, the thrust efficiency rises to 50 percent.
The aircraft’s technique is highly similar to engines used in spacecraft. According to Barrett, “There are some significant similarities.”
The difference is that to enable thrust some spacecraft ionize a fuel like xenon gas. MIT’s no-fuel plane, on the other hand, does not rely on propellant but rather, thin wires and lithium-polymer battery.
At this point, the technology is still a prototype and has limited capabilities, but it’s clear that it has great potential in the future. As for now, the technology can be further developed to be used for drones to eliminate the need for propellers.
“I don’t yet know whether you’ll see large aircraft carrying people any time soon, but obviously I’d be very excited if that was the case,” Barrett said in the interview.
At this point, tests continue for the aircraft. Now the team can control the plane using a remote compared before that it only flies in a straight line. The next step would be removing the filaments hanging off the plane, and more test flights in the future.
At the end of the study, the team compares the length of the aircraft’s flight to Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1904, which is the world’s first lighter-than-air flight. Although, the latter did not include a pilot.
The technology offers exciting possibilities in the future. Barret said, “it is possible to fly planes that are solid state, and we demonstrated that for the first time.”
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