Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have flown an aircraft that has no moving parts. 

Instead, the plane is propelled by electro aerodynamic thrust—an ionic wind.

First theorized almost a century ago, the idea is that when a powerful enough electric current travels between a thick and thin electrode, it creates an airflow of charged particles.

On MIT’s plane, thin wires are strung horizontally along and underneath the front end of the plane’s single wing. The wires act as a positive electrode.

Thicker wires are strung in the same way along the back of the wing to form a negative electrode.

Batteries in the plane’s fuselage shoot 40,000 volts into the wires.

The electrically charged wires at the front of the wing grab and strip electrons from passing air molecules. The remaining pieces of air are ionized, carrying a positive charge.

Those positively charged molecules are magnetically attracted to the negative electrode made by the wires at the back of the wing.

As they fly toward the back of the wing, those ions collide with millions of other air molecules, knocking them all backward and creating a thrust that pushes the plane forward.

MIT’s experimental craft weighed five pounds and had a five-meter wingspan, about 15.5. feet.

In tests, the plane flew 60 meters, more than 180 feet, across the biggest gym on the institute’s campus. In 10 tests, the ionic wind was able to drive the silent plane the full distance.

The initial success has encouraged the engineers to work to produce more thrust with less electric power and battery volume.

TRENDPOST: For its size and the distance traveled, the ionic plane’s maiden flight was roughly comparable to the Wright brothers’ achievement at Kitty Hawk. Just 15 years after that, airplanes were carrying mail and dropping bombs in World War One.

Improvements are being made in lightweight battery technology that could render MIT’s silent, fuel-free aircraft commercially practical for light duty in the relatively near future.

MIT’s ion-powered aircraft.
Photo: MIT
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