An aeroplane with no moving parts has taken flight for the first time, potentially opening up a new frontier in aviation. Whereas conventional aeroplanes are powered by engines and propellers that give them thrust and uplift, this one flies silently, ‘gliding’ on wind that it generates itself. The system relies on positively and negatively charged electrodes under the wings which ionise atmospheric nitrogen. Travelling along an electric field to the aeroplane’s rear, in the vortex, these ions collide with normal air molecules, creating ‘ionic wind’ to propel the aeroplane.
The project is the brainchild of Professor Steven Barrett, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who said his original inspiration came from the science fiction he watched as a child. “I was a big fan of Star Trek and at that point I thought that the future looked like it should be planes that fly silently, maybe with a blue glow. But certainly no propellers or turbines or anything like that”. In adulthood he began to look into how that might be achieved – and stumbled on the concept of ‘ionic wind’, which is not new, but which had been discounted as a means of powering flights in the 1950s.
The technology could, in theory, lead to environmentally clean and silent passenger aeroplanes. But that is someway off! The one tested by MIT was made largely of balsa wood weighing just 2.4kg. After being launched in an indoor gym with a slingshot, it remained aloft for 12 seconds (the same time the Wright brothers achieved with their first successful flight) and traveled 60 meters. See video clip here.
Other forms of ‘clean’ travel has the potential to be found in nuclear fusion, laser propulsion and antimatter. Another short clip here.
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