Ion drive: The first flight
Published on Nov 21, 2018
Researchers from MIT have flown a plane without moving parts for the first time. It is powered by an ‘ion drive’ which uses high powered electrodes to ionise and accelerate air particles, creating an ‘ionic wind’. This wind drove a 5m wide craft across a sports hall. Unlike the ion drives which have powered space craft for decades, this new drive uses air as the accelerant. The researchers say it could power silent drones. Read the original research paper: doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-07… Read Nature’s Editorial which also raises possible concerns about how a silent drone might be used: doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07…
Here is a snippet from a Scientific American.com article called Silent and Simple Ion Engine Powers a Plane with No Moving Parts. There is also an ATS discussion with the same title here.
Behind a thin white veil separating his makeshift lab from joggers at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology indoor track, aerospace engineer Steven Barrett recently test-flew the first-ever airplane powered with ionic wind thrusters—electric engines that generate momentum by creating and firing off charged particles.
Using this principle to fly an aircraft has long been, according even to Barrett, a “far-fetched idea” and the stuff of science fiction. But he still wanted to try. “In Star Trek you have shuttlecraft gliding silently past,” he says. “I thought, ‘We should have aircraft like that.’”
Thinking ionic wind propulsion could fit the bill, he spent eight years studying the technology and then decided to try building a prototype miniature aircraft—albeit one he thought was a little ugly. “It’s a kind of dirty yellow color,” he says, adding that black paint often contains carbon—which conducts electricity and caused a previous iteration to fry itself
Unlike its predecessors, which had tumbled to the ground, Version 2 sailed nearly 200 feet through the air at roughly 11 miles per hour (17 kilometers per hour). With no visible exhaust and no roaring jet or whirling propeller—no moving parts at all, in fact—the aircraft seemed silently animated by an ethereal source. “It was very exciting,” Barrett says. “Then it crashed into the wall, which wasn’t ideal.”
Barrett and his team figured out three main things to make Version 2 work. The first was the ionic wind thruster design. Version 2’s thrusters consist of two rows of long metal strands draped under its sky blue wings. The front row conducts some 40,000 volts of electricity—166 times the voltage delivered to the average house, and enough energy to strip the electrons off ample nitrogen atoms hanging in the atmosphere.
Another innovation Barrett’s team came up with was designing a lightweight but powerful electrical system, Walker notes. Before this aircraft, he says, nobody had created a system that could convert power from a lightweight battery efficiently enough to generate sufficient voltage for the thrusters.
Finally Barrett used a computer model to get the most out of every design element in the aircraft, from the thruster and electrical system designs to the wires that ran through the plane. “The power converter, the battery, the caps and fuselage—everything was optimized,” Barrett says. “The simulations failed all the time. We had to make hundreds of changes.” In the end, they had the triumphant Version 2.
The breakthrough offers a great proof of concept showing ion thrusters can be used on Earth….Propellers and jets are still far more efficient than the ion wind thrusters Barrett demonstrated, making it unlikely that passenger planes would switch over anytime soon. But the thrusters have one key advantage: “There’s no sound generation
If we can overcome our socio-survival obstacles and get ourselves to a good place the future is made nicer by this development. I would venture that although it does require lots and lots of volts, those volts will be forthcoming without too much difficulty. Note to self: gotta read all the articles!