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24 November 2018, 02:34 | Justin Tyler
A plane powered by supercharged air particles
Inspired in part by the technology of Star Trek, the MIT aircraft is powered by a relatively obscure principle known as ion propulsion or electroaerodynamic thrust.
MIT engineers have flown an Ion Drive (with high power electrodes to ionize the air particles) in the Ionic wind ( a wind thruster that is used to generate ionic wind), a phenomenon similar to Vernon Brechin in the year 1960.
London-born Steven Barrett, Professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT in the U.S., said: "This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler - and do not emit combustion emissions".
An experimental electric plane with no moving parts has been successfully designed and flown by scientists in the US.
Barrett said the inspiration for the team's ion plane comes partly from the movie and television series, "Star Trek".
He was especially impressed by the show's futuristic shuttle crafts that skimmed through the air producing hardly any noise or exhaust.
Nearly every powered aircraft that has flown, including solar-powered planes, have relied on moving parts such as propellers or turbines.
One of the biggest challenges faced by the MIT team was designing a power supply that would generate 40,000 volts from the plane's battery output, one of the biggest stumbling blocks in adapting the technology for large-scale commercial use. This is enough to induce "electron cascades", ultimately charging air molecules near the wire. As they move towards the collectors, the ions collide with air molecules, transferring energy to them. Such technology had been around for a while, helping to power spacecraft beyond Earth's atmosphere, one aerospace engineer toldScientific American.
Ionic wind, also known as electroaerodynamic thrust, was first identified in the 1920s and explored by scientists and engineers in the U.S. and at Britain's Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in the 1960s, but they were only able to produce very low levels of thrust, insufficient for flight. The team flew the plane a distance of 60 meters (the maximum distance within the gym) and found the plane produced enough ionic thrust to sustain flight the entire time. Barrett said he's also interested in finding out out whether ion propulsion could lead to a different kind of aircraft, such as fixed-wing fliers with no visible propulsion system or controls surfaces such as rudders and elevators. "It's still some way away from an aircraft that could perform a useful mission". Before the advent of V2, researchers weren't able to fly anything heavier than a few grams.
"I'm trying not to over-sell it, but there are some really exciting possibilities here", said Barrett, who pointed to near-silent drones as a possibility within several years. In the nearer term, the design could have applications in making smaller aircraft, such as drones, less noisy. "This is the first time we've achieved level flight with an aeroplane - which is a heavier-than-air flying vehicle", Barrett added.
"You could imagine all sorts of military or security benefits to having a silent propulsion system with no infrared signature", said MIT professor Steven Barrett, a co-author on the Nature study.
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