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Scientists Really Created a Star Trek-Like Plane that Runs on “Ion Thrusters,” No Fuel

It was recently reported in the realm of scientific discovery that a major step has been accomplished toward creating some new “aircraft of the future” as it is billed, a flying device powered by not fuel and moving parts in the current mechanical paradigm of modern aircraft, but powered by an “ion drive.”

A paper published this week in the journal Nature showcased the findings of a team led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientist Steven Barrett.

It described how the team managed to successfully create what they call an electrodynamics-powered plane. The plane is said to utilize something known as solid-state propulsion, with no jet engines running on fuel, or propellers.

(Image credit: blogs.discovermagazine)

“The future of flight shouldn’t be things with propellers and turbines,” Barrett said in a video. “[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.”

With common sense it can be difficult to comprehend how such a device would work. How could something fly and propel itself forward without propellers or something to make use of the air? It was said that this has never been possible before because technology wasn’t advanced enough, but to specify what technology, it takes a minute. It was said that as far back as nearly a century ago in 1921, scientists have been trying and failing to develop some similar way to make planes fly.

For a couple years from 2016 to 2018, the researchers performed tests in which they constructed an aircraft with a wingspan measuring 16 feet (5 meters), weighing 5.4 lbs (2.45 kg). It features several thin electrodes fixed across the surface of its wings, and at the front of them thin wires are present. At the back, something called an aerofoil is present, and that is defined as a curved surface to produce the lift of the aircraft, a standard feature you’ll recognize on an ordinary wing of a plane.

(Image credit: blogs.discovermagazine)

The idea is to generate a positive 20,000 volts with those thin wires at the front of the aircraft, working while the aerofoil at the back receives a charge of negative 20,000 volts. The two positive and negative currents form a strong electric field, according to the researchers.

Then at the front of it, electrons are removed from the nitrogen molecules present in the air, which in turn produces ions. Then as those ions accelerate to the back, what is produced is an ionic wind: the ionic wind is what gives the plane thrust.

The creation of an ionic wind through the generation of a strong electric field is basically what this design is all about.

“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 said. “Like the force you get if you rub a balloon on your head.”

The team was able to boast that over the course of ten test flights, the aircraft successfully glided around 200 feet (60 meters) in about 12 seconds, in the setting of a large gym that the team was able to use. A thrust efficiency, measurement of one of the most important factors in this equation, was measured at about 2.6 percent, which obviously sounds like gibberish to anybody who isn’t familiar with the subject.

(Image credit: blogs.discovermagazine)

Just like the motion of a regular plane, as the speed increases, the efficiency of the flying system increases. They say theoretically at 670 miles (1,080 kilometers) per hour, which is faster than your average passenger jet, it is at 50 percent efficiency. Still it’s hard to translate that to an understanding of how well this technology works.

It is said that ion engines are actually already used in some spacecraft for propulsion through space. These space vehicles are dependent on ionizing a fuel, something as unusual as xenon gas, which produces thrust. The MIT team’s prototype doesn’t require propellant, those wires and one off the shelf lithium-polymer battery did just fine.

Keep in mind the thing they flew was tiny. In the future only small drones at first would be capable of utilizing such technology, it would have to advance quite a bit for a large, passenger aircraft to use such a thing, one could only assume. “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.

Using a remote control, the team is continuing the tests, trying to turn the aircraft in mid-air as opposed to flying in a straight line. This is an ongoing effort, and it’s quite a far out idea when it comes to flight.

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