Sci-Fi Achieved: MIT Scientists Fly First Ion Powered Aircraft

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Flight has been historically concocted of metal and combustion. The four main functions of metalworking fluid — cooling, lubrication, chip removal, and corrosion control — worked in tandem to piece hundreds of tons of metal together. Then massive combustion engines would propel the hunk of metal into the sky. Now we have flight. Well, rudimentary flight.

In films, we’ve heard things like hyperspace, lightspeed, ion engines, and the like. Most of which are fictional, with some far-reaching factual basis in physics. However, scientists recently built and flew the first plane powered by ion thrust technology. It flew successfully without combustion and without any moving parts.

It works with electric engines that produce and emit charged particles the physics community call ionic wind or ionic thrust. The technology has previously been tested successfully in the vacuum of space but ran into problems maneuvering the heavy atmosphere of the Earth.

They ran a controlled test that successfully flew a small aircraft 200 feet at 11 miles per hour, purely from ion thrust. It’s admittedly a baby step, but the implications are exciting.

“This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions,” said Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.

They published a breakdown of how it works in the journal Nature and covered the project on MIT news. They note that their project has been widely dismissed over the years and that several physicists insisted their study was nothing more than a fruitless hobby. They answered that in kind and will continue to work on their findings, hopefully ushering advancement in aeronautical engineering. Because like with all world-changing inquiry, it begins with an idea that many dismiss as foolish.

“This was the simplest possible plane we could design that could prove the concept that an ion plane could fly. It’s still some way away from an aircraft that could perform a useful mission. It needs to be more efficient, fly for longer and fly outside,” Barrett concluded.

They’ll return to the drawing board with fresh enthusiasm from their success. Next up is making it bigger, faster, stronger, and more efficient. In 2011, there were roughly 224,475 active general aircraft in the United States. Those were all running on combustion. Now, imagine ion powered aircraft. The proof is finally here, all they need to do is propel themselves forward and the possibilities are open for discovery.

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