A new airplane uses charged molecules, not propellers or turbines, to fly

The nearly silent aircraft weighs about as much as a Chihuahua

an illustration of the new aircraft

ION POWER  A new aircraft (illustrated) is propelled forward by streams of charged molecules moving among wires.

H. Xu et al/Nature 2018

A newly designed airplane prototype does away with noisy propellers and turbines.

Instead, it’s powered by ionic wind: charged molecules, or ions, flowing in one direction and pushing the plane in the other. That setup makes the aircraft nearly silent. Such stealth planes could be useful for monitoring environmental conditions or capturing aerial imagery without disturbing natural habitats below.

The aircraft is the first of its kind to be propelled in this way, researchers report in the Nov. 22 Nature. In 10 indoor test flights the small plane, which weighs about as much as a Chihuahua, traveled 40 to 45 meters for almost 10 seconds at a steady height, even gaining about half a meter of altitude over the course of a flight.

Most planes rely on spinning parts to move forward. In some, an engine turns a propeller that pushes the plane forward. Or a turbine sucks in air with a spinning fan, and then shoots out jets of gas that propel the plane forward.

Ionic wind is instead generated by a high-voltage electric field around a positively charged wire, called an emitter. The electricity, often supplied by batteries, makes electrons in the air collide with atoms and molecules, which then release other electrons. That creates a swarm of positively charged air molecules around the emitter, which are drawn to a negatively charged wire. The movement of molecules between the two wires, the ionic wind, can push a plane forward. The current design uses four sets of these wires.

a composite photo showing the new aircraft flying across a warehouse
FLIGHT PATH Scientists tested a new aircraft, propelled by ionic wind, at MIT’s indoor track. This time-lapse photo shows that the plane can fly at a level height for tens of meters. Steven Barrett
Moving ions have helped other things to fly through the air, such as tiny airborne robots. But conventional wisdom said that using the approach to move something through the air as big as an airplane wasn’t possible, because adding enough battery power to propel a plane this way would make it too heavy to stay aloft. (The ion thrusters that propel spacecraft through the vacuum of space work in a very different way and aren’t functional in air.) Attempts to build ion-propelled aircraft in the 1960s weren’t very successful.

MIT aeronautics researcher Steven Barrett thought differently. With the right aircraft design and light enough batteries, flight might be possible, his initial calculations suggested. So he and his team used mathematical equations to optimize various features of the airplane — its shape, materials, power supply — and to predict how each version would fly. Then the researchers built prototypes of promising designs and tested the planes at the MIT indoor track, launching them via a bungee system.

“The models and the reality of construction don’t always match up perfectly,” Barrett says, so finding the right design took a lot of tries. But in the new study, he and his collaborators report success: 10 flights of the aircraft, which has a 5-meter wingspan and weighs just under 2.5 kilograms.

Barrett’s team isn’t the only one who thought the ionic wind method might take off. Based on calculations done in his lab, “we were confident that this could be done,” says Franck Plouraboue of the Toulouse Fluid Mechanics Institute in France, who wasn’t part of the research. “Here they’ve done it — which is fantastic!”

It’s an example of distributed electric propulsion, says Plouraboue — spreading out the thrust-generating parts of the plane, instead of having one centralized source. That’s a hot area for aircraft research right now. NASA’s X-57 Maxwell plane, for example, bears 14 battery-operated motors along its wings. Increasing the number of propellers makes the plane go farther on the same amount of energy, says Plouraboue, but also increases the drag. With ionic wind propulsion, increasing the number of wires doesn’t increase drag very much.

The plane still needs some upgrades before it’s ready for the real world: Its longest flight was only 12 seconds. And while the aircraft can maintain steady flight for a short time once launched, it can’t actually get off the ground using ionic wind.  

Even with improvements, ion-propelled aircraft won’t find their niche as passenger planes, predicts Daniel Drew, an aerodynamics researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the work. (Drew has designed miniature flying bots that fly using ionic propulsion.) It’s probably not feasible to scale up to something the size of a 747 — there are efficiency trade-offs as planes get bigger, he says. But down the road, the approach might be useful for small, uncrewed planes or drones.

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