Modern airplanes are powered by burning fossil fuels in order to power combustion engines for flight. As the world moves more toward developing greener technologies to combat the impacts of client change, at some point airplane travel and commercial logistics will have to be addressed.

MIT engineers are already working toward this moment with a plane that was built and flown with no moving parts. Instead of propellers or turbines, the light aircraft is powered by ionic wind — a silent flow of ions that is produced on the plane and that generates enough thrust to propel the plane over a sustained flight.

MIT said the solid-state plane does not use fossil fuels like current aircraft and unlike drones has no propellers making it completely silent.

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

In the near term, the technology could be used to create silent drones but eventually, the ion propulsion system could be paired with more conventional combustion systems to create more fuel-efficient, hybrid passenger planes and other larger aircraft, MIT said.

Creating an Ion Cloud

The plane created by MIT resembles a lightweight glider that weighs about 5 pounds and has a 5-meter wingspan. It carries an array of thin wires that 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 that supply 40,000 volts to positively charge the wires via a power converter. Once energized, the wires act to attract and strip away negatively charged electrons from surrounding air molecules. The air molecules that are left behind are newly ionized and are attracted to the negatively charged electrodes at the back of the plane.

This ion cloud flows toward the negatively charged wires, where each ion collides millions of times with other air molecules creating thrust and propelling the plane forward.

MIT tested the plan multiple times across the gymnasium in MIT’s DuPont Athletic Center where it flew a distance of 60 meters. The plane produced enough ionic thrust to sustain flight the entire time. The team repeated the flight 10 times with similar performance.

“This was the simplest possible plane we could design that could prove the concept that an ion plane could fly,” Barrett said. “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.”

The next steps are to increase the efficiency of the design, produce more ionic wind with less voltage and increase the design’s thrust density.

The full research can be found in the journal Nature.

To contact the author of this article, email pbrown@globalspec.com