Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have built a silent, lightweight plane that features no moving part in its propulsion system and is powered by an 'ionic wind'.
The scientists claim that it is a world first. The aircraft was successfully flown recently for a distance of 60 metres, demonstrating that it is possible for a plane to fly without propellers or jets.
The 'ionic wind' refers to a powerful electric field (created by a strong flow of ions), which generates enough thrust to move the plane in a forward direction.
"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 at MIT and the lead author of the study.
Barrett claims that he got the inspiration to design a silent plane partly from science fiction series 'Star Trek', which he watched with keen interest during his childhood days.
"This made me think, in the long-term future, planes shouldn't have propellers and turbines," Barrett added.
Barrett's ion plane weighs just 2.45 kilos. It has a wingspan of five metres, and manages to fit in a high-voltage power converter and a stack of batteries.
An array of thick wires is strung along the back end of the plane's wing, acting as negatively charged electrodes. Similarly, thinner wires run along the front end of the aircraft's wing and serve as positive electrodes.
Using the high-voltage power converter, the output of batteries is converted to 600 watts of power at 40,000 volts to positively charge the wires running along the front end.
As these wires get energised, they start attracting electrons from nearly air molecules. This leaves a cloud of positively charged molecules which gets pulled toward the negatively charged wires at the back of the aircraft's wing.
As the cloud of ions starts moving, each ion hits neighbouring air molecules millions of times, thereby producing a thrust, which propels the plane forward.
The team has successfully carried out multiple indoor test flights of the plane in MIT's DuPont Athletic Centre. During these flights, the plane generated enough ionic thrust to travel a distance of about 60 meters.
The team is now working to build a bigger version of the plane with better speed and range.
The findings of the study are published in the journal Nature.
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