An airplane with no moving parts has flown a distance of 60 meters. Is that a big deal? It is if you consider that on a cold December day in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first airplane changed the world when it flew a distance of only 37 meters. What new ideas could a solid-state airplane with no jet or internal combustion engine lead to?
Steven Barrett is an aeronautics professor at MIT. He has been leading a team of researchers investigating “ionic wind” propulsion for more than 5 years. He tells The Guardian the inspiration for the research came straight from watching episodes of Star Trek when he was young.
“I was a big fan of Star Trek, and at that point I thought that the future looked like it should be planes that fly silently, with no moving parts — and maybe have a blue glow. But certainly no propellers or turbines or anything like that. So I started looking into what physics might make flight with no moving parts possible, and came across a concept known as the ionic wind, with was first investigated in the 1920s.
“This didn’t make much progress in that time. It was looked at again in the 1950s, and researchers concluded that it couldn’t work for aeroplanes. But I started looking into this and went through a period of about five years, working with a series of graduate students to improve fundamental understanding of how you could reduce ionic winds efficiently, and how that could be optimized.”
The first successful prototype, with the decidedly unsexy name of Version Two, uses wires at the leading edge of its wing that carry 600 watts of electricity at 40,000 volts. The current gives a positive charge to nitrogen molecules near the wire which then flow backward toward a second wire at rear of the wing, imparting energy to neutral air molecules along the way. As the neutral molecules stream back from the wing, they create thrust equivalent to that created by a conventional jet engine.
Barrett is the lead author of a report which was published recently in the journal Nature (subscription) that describes the work that made the solid-state plane possible. Prof Guy Gratton, an aerospace engineer and visiting professor at Cranfield University, tells The Guardian, “It’s clearly very early days but the team at MIT have done something we never previously knew was possible in using accelerated ionized gas to propel an aircraft.
“Aeronautical engineers around the world are already trying hard to find ways to use electric propulsion, and this technology will offer something else that in the future may allow manned and unmanned aircraft to be more efficient and non-polluting. In particular, the fact that they have already got this out of the laboratory and flown a battery driven model aircraft — albeit so far on a very small and controlled scale — is very exciting.”
The solid-state prototype has a wingspan of 5 meters. Even with its battery pack and high voltage transformer fitted, it weighs a mere 2.45 kilograms. Low weight is a key component to getting the plane to fly. The researchers are now focused on ways to increase the speed and range of the aircraft.
The concept of an airplane with no moving parts could lead to zero emissions air travel, but it also could make entirely new types of aircraft possible. Perhaps a solar powered version could soar for years at the edge of space powered solely by sunlight, making it a pseudo-satellite. Barrett says solid-state propulsion is especially suitable for miniaturization. “Solid-state things lend themselves to scaling down quite well,” he said, “creating extremely small flight vehicles that serve uses we can’t imagine.” Warp factor 3, Mister Sulu!
No one in 1903 could imagine the implications of that fateful day at Kitty Hawk. Where Steven Barrett’s invention may lead is unknowable at this time as well. Check out the video below for more more about the MIT solid-state airplane project.
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