New wind-powered airplane thrusters are an alternative to petrol-powered jet engines

ion-thruster-nasa

Have you ever thought why some great engineer guy never designed an aircraft that flew solely on air without the need for petrol? Well, it appears your thoughts might one day become a reality. You see, scientists have always wanted to pull off something like this for a long time, but they were hampered by technology.

Fast forward to 2013 and a team of developers from MIT are working on what they call Ionic Wind Thrusters as an alternative to jet-powered engines. The new thrusters use ionic wind energy, something that is created when electricity passes between two electrodes. The stronger the wind current that passes between the two electrodes, the stronger the thrust provided.

For it to actually work as intended, one electrode has to be thinner than the other, along with a substantial amount of voltage. However, that is technical stuff you probably don’t care about. What you need to know is, these thrusters are essentially powered by wind — but it should be noted a electrical source is still needed to pass the initial current between two electrodes.

To top it off, the researchers at MIT say these thrusters are more efficient than traditional petrol-powered jet engines, generating 110 newtons per kilowatt vs 2 newtons per kilowatt. And they give off no heat signature, making them ideal for military purposes.

Now, it all sounds good and dandy on paper, but pulling it off is where the difficulties arise. According to assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, Steven Barret, a very large air gap is needed to lift a small aircraft and its power supply off the ground. However, Barret believes this problem could be solved by covering the entire aircraft in thrusters.

We hope the smart people at MIT pulls this off and make it a reality. If it happens, it is likely military aircrafts could become the very first vehicles to take advantage of Ionic Wind Thrusters. By the time this technology is available for consumer aircraft, we’d likely be on our way out of this world and into the next. And by that I mean Mars or Neptune, not death.

[via MIT, image via NASA]

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14 comments

  1. jayesstee

    [@vandamme] Yeh, see comment #7, above.
    I believe the V1 engine’s valves were rows of vanes (think “Venetian blind”, only smaller).  The engine I played with had the valves arranged around a central area, bit like petals on a flower.

  2. jayesstee

    Sorry, I must have clicked “post”.  As I was saying: A twin cylinder hand operated air/tyre pump was used to get air moving in the tube.  When it fired, the spring steel valves (flaps) would close and the engine would thrust out of the rear of the tube. As the pressure dropped the valves would open, and a fresh charge of air would be dragged in from the front of the tube.
    If and when the engine continued to run, the ignition and pump would be rapidly disconnected and the vehicle launched.
    Once in motion, air would be forced in the front of the engine.
    Rare, sustained launches with the engine at power gave a noise as loud as a factory siren.  Oh, the “tube” glowed brightly!

  3. jayesstee

    [@David Roper] No. The .049 was one of a range of (single) piston engines that ran from 0.5cc (0.031Cu. in.) to 10cc (0.610 cu. in.)
    In my day (the ’50s) the best makes were “Dooling”, “McCoy” (both American); “SuperTigre” (Italian) and a German make who’s name I cannot recall.
    The whole range of sizes were available as a “glow plug” engine running on a mixture of methanol and caster oil.
    The smaller sizes, particularly in Europe, could be “ignition-less” diesels.  These ran on a mixture of kerosine, ether and castor oil.
    The ram-jet that I had a chance to play with, was a long venturi shaped tube, with a set of thin spring steel valves.  It was run on kerosene (no lubricant was necessary) and started by a spark plug connected to a high voltage pulse generator.  A twin cylinder air

  4. Bub

    [@Ashraf]
    Although Stephen could have raised his criticism more tactfully, I find myself nonetheless agreeing with him that the science – even in the revised article – is not well-portrayed. Reading this article twice, it still seems to imply to me that wind is a source of energy for these engines, which is not true. Use of terms such as “ionic wind energy” (which does not appear in the source article) contributes to this confusion.

    To set the record straight, one must distinguish between energy and propulsion (source of momentum). In traditional jet aircraft, the fuel is both an energy source and a propellant, thus making it easy to confuse the two. This engine design divorces the two, so that the energy could come from any source of electricity, whereas the propulsion comes from accelerating the air the vehicle flies through. That in itself is nothing new; a propellor-based airplane does the same thing, albeit in a much less cool way.

    This article’s misuse of words like “energy” and “power” to describe the new technology (e.g., “wind-powered”, “ionic wind energy”) create confusion. It would be more accurate to say that this is propelled by wind, rather than powered by wind.

  5. jayesstee

    [@Darcy] Ram-jets have been in existence for 60 years.  They ran on kerosene.  In World War 2, the Germans used such a ramjet for their “V1″ (flying bomb, “Doodlebug”) weapon.
    While in the RAF, I was a member of an on-camp model aircraft club which had a model ram-jet.  I can’t remember the name of the American manufacturer.

  6. Ashraf
    Mr. Boss

    [@stephan] Why do people have a need to showoff their knowledge at the expense of others? I am always for dotTechies pointing out and correcting any errors in our articles (after all, we can’t be experts in everything) but it can be done without being a jerk or degrading the author.

    And in this particular case, you are wrong. We clearly mentioned the facts you refer to in the article. The only thing we left out is explicitly mentioning an electric source is still needed, which we thought was obvious since we mentioned the need of a current. However, i’ve updated the article to clarify this.

    Thanks for your feedback.

  7. stephan

    wow, did the author of this article not at all understand the ideas here.

    a traditional propeller, a jet, and this ionic thruster all work by accelerating air. The traditional propeller and jet use mechanical means to do this. This thruster does it by creating a powerful electric field which turns the air molecules into ions which get pulled through the electric field, thereby creating thrust. It will still need an engine to generate the vast amounts of electrical energy required to do this.