By Prarthana Mitra
The world’s first electric plane with no moving parts successfully flew a distance of 60 metres, proving that heavier-than-air flight is possible without turbines or propellers. Published in the science journal Nature, the study conducted by MIT marks the advent of quieter, lower-emission aircraft.
A milestone in aviation
Presenting a breakthrough in “ionic wind” technology, the turbineless battery-driven model used electro-aerodynamic propulsion to make its maiden flight — albeit on a small and controlled scale. According to MIT Technology Review, the experimental aircraft propelled itself 60 meters (200 feet, the length of a school gym) using electricity directly.
“I was a big fan of Star Trek,” said Steven Barrett, lead author of the study, “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.” In 2009, he started looking into the physics of making it possible and came across a concept known as the ionic wind, which has been around since the 1960s.
Using accelerated ionised gas to propel an aircraft
Barrett’s experiments resulted in an electrically powered propulsion system with a thrust-to-power ratio comparable to that achieved by conventional jet engines. The plane itself weighs just 2.45 kg but managed to fit in a five-metre wingspan, battery stack, and a high-voltage power converter.
Using a powerful electric field by reducing and optimising ionic winds efficiently, the aircraft was able to generate and expel charged nitrogen ions, needed to create thrust. The wings of the prototype plane were wired to carry 600 watts of electrical power pumped through them at 40,000 volts. This induced “electron cascades” which impart energy to the air molecules streaming out of the back of the plane, providing thrust.
Why it matters
“Although it is still a long way off from commercial gas turbine propulsion … electro[-]aerodynamic propulsion has the potential to be a game-changer for short-range, small-payload drone flights,” Priyanka Dhopade, a researcher at the Oxford Thermofluids Institute, was quoted by the MIT Technology Review.
A number of studies have tried to find practical ways to use electric propulsion in flying planes but never managed to proceed beyond a laboratory set-up. Following the popularity of electric cars, this technology will offer a carbon-neutral option to operate manned and unmanned aircraft in the near future which is not only more efficient and easier to maintain, but also more sustainable and non-polluting.
The MIT team plans to increase the size, range and speed of the plane, and eventually open it up to the global aviation industry to power safer flights devoid of combustion emissions.
Quieter flights, the lack of moving parts, and the ability to soar for years could even allow it to act as a pseudo-satellite. In the immediate future, potential applications of “Version Two”, as it is tentatively named, include unmanned drones and high-altitude solar-powered flight.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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