Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have built and flown the first-ever plane with no moving parts. The light aircraft is powered by an “ionic wind” – described by the inventors as a silent but mighty flow of ions, produced aboard the plane, that generates enough thrust to propel the plane over a sustained, steady flight.
Ionic wind, also known as electro-aerodynamic thrust, is a physical principle first identified in the 1920s. The “wind” or thrust, is produced when a current is passed between a thin and a thick electrode.
A media release by MIT points out that since the first aeroplane took flight over 100 years ago, “virtually every aircraft in the sky has flown with the help of moving parts such as propellers, turbine blades, and fans, which are powered by the combustion of fossil fuels or by battery packs that produce a persistent, whining buzz”.
That’s why the new model is so revolutionary.
Unlike turbine-powered planes, the aircraft does not depend on fossil fuels to fly. And unlike propeller-driven drones, the new design is completely silent.
“This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system,” says Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.
“This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions.”
Barrett, an Englishman and a graduate of the University of Cambridge, expects that in the near future, such ion wind propulsion systems could be used to fly quieter drones. Later, ion propulsion paired with more conventional combustion systems could create more fuel-efficient, hybrid passenger planes and other large aircraft.
Eventually, who knows, the system could be used to power passenger planes. As Barrett puts it, they could be “more like the shuttles in ‘Star Trek,’ that have just a blue glow and silently glide”.
The team’s final design resembles a large, lightweight glider. It weighs about 2.3kg, has a 5-metre wingspan and carries an array of thin wires, which act as positively charged electrodes, while similarly arranged thicker wires running along the back end of the plane’s wing, serve as negative electrodes.
The fuselage of the plane holds a stack of lithium-polymer batteries, zapping out 40,000 volts to positively charge the wires via a lightweight power converter.
Barrett’s team is working on increasing the efficiency of their design, to produce more ionic wind with less voltage.
Barrett and his team at MIT have published their results in the journal Nature.
Edited by Peter Needham