- MIT researchers build the working plane without moving parts
- Swims on "ionic winds" at 60 meters
- "The possibilities for this type of propulsion system are now viable"
Airplanes flying without moving parts are now a reality.
You've probably seen them in Star Trek and slipped quietly into the cosmic junction.
MIT Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Stephen Barrett saw them when he was a child. And now he has developed the ionic windy plane of his childhood dreams.
Here is in action:
This is the first time an airplane has flown without moving parts.
"In the long run, planes should not have propellers and turbines," says Barrett. "They should be more like the Star Trek shuttles, which have a simple blue light and slide gently.
What drives it are those lines of wire laid in front of the model:
"Ionian wind" is more commonly known as "electro-dynamic pressure" and is actually based on a principle first identified in the 1920s.
It describes the wind or the pressure that occurs when the current flows between a thin and a thick electrode. If enough voltage is applied, the air between the electrodes can lead to sufficient load to propel a small airplane.
But, in reality, the reality of it has never gone beyond the lovers who lift the small models attached to heavy stresses outside their workspace.
Nine years ago in a sleepless night at a hotel, drummer Barrett went to work on the back of an envelope to find a way to turn theory into a viable propulsion system.
And just recently, in MIT's Dutton athletic center, they made an airplane with 5-meter wing wings at 60 meters without the help of moving parts.
They repeated the flight 10 times as the airplane repeatedly produced enough pressure to keep it at such distances each time.
"This was the easiest possible plane we could design, which could prove the concept that the ionic plane can fly," says Barrett.
"It's still far from an airplane that can perform a useful mission, it must be more efficient, fly longer and fly out."
Jonas, how do they work?
The power comes from a pile of lithium-polymer batteries in the housing.
But the key to his work came from the members of Professor David Peretull in the electronics research group at the Electronics Research Lab
They designed a power supply that transformed the output of the batteries so they could supply electricity at 40,000 volts – enough to charge the wires positively through a lightweight power converter.
Here's the technical explanation of what's happening next through MIT News:
Once the wires are fed, they act to attract and remove negatively charged electrons from surrounding air molecules, like a giant magnet attracting iron chips. The remaining molecules of air are newly ionized and are attracted to the negatively charged electrodes at the rear of the plane.
As the newly formed cloud of ions runs to the negatively charged wires, each ion collides millions of times with other air molecules, creating the thrust that drives the airplane forward.
We've already seen ionic discs. NASA has a system called HiPEP, and a student at Sydney's Patrick Paddy. Neumann has a system he wants to use to allow long journeys through space.
But none of them should fight gravity.
Barrett's team may continue to try to improve the efficiency of their design, to produce less ionic fluids with less strain.
"It took a long time to get here," says Barrett. "Exiting the basic principle in something that actually flies was a long journey to characterize physics, then to come up with the design and do the job.
"Now the opportunities for this type of propulsion system are viable."
Here's another test video:
Read more about the test results in Nature magazine.
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