MIT ionic wind plane
Credit: Christine Y. He

A totally silent, completely fossil fuel free lightweight aircraft has been developed by researchers from MIT, inspired by sci-fi movies and the TV show “Star Trek”.

An electric plane in itself isn’t a novel development (we’ve reported on several), but it is the way in which the aircraft achieves flight that is notable – without any moving parts whatsoever, it is propelled forwards by a silent flow of ions that allow it to stay in the air.

The researchers, including Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, demonstrated the successful flight of the aircraft at MIT and published their findings in science journal Nature.

“This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system,” Barrett said in a press release from MIT.

The plane, which carries a specially designed, very light, 40 kilovolt power converter, uses a method called electroaerodynamic thrust which allows the “ionic wind” ,and which was first thought up in the 1920s.

For Barrett, it was his childhood fascination with the effortless flight of aircraft in Star Trek that motivated his efforts to further develop the method.

“This made me think, in the long-term future, planes shouldn’t have propellers and turbines,” Barrett says. “They should be more like the shuttles in ‘Star Trek,’ that have just a blue glow and silently glide.”

Nature published a video of the flight on Youtube, in which Barrett explains the method further:

“Under the wing, rather than conventional engines at has a series of electrodes,” he says in the video, explaining that the flight was made possible due to a flow of nitrogen ions through an electric field created by the electrodes, “creating this wind that goes behind the plane”.

While the flight was only about 10 seconds (it was conducted in a gym that the researchers were able to secure at short notice) and there are some limitations due to thrust force possible, the “solid state” flight presents many possibilities, particularly for smaller aircraft such as drones.

“This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions,” Barret says.

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