Science and Technology

Ionic wings

| Updated on March 28, 2021

Can you imagine a plane without moving parts? Is this a flight of fancy, you might well ask.

However, scientists are indeed experimenting with a plane that is propelled only by ions gushing out of its tail, knocking millions of air molecules. The plane is pushed forward by the resultant ‘ionic wind’. This idea came from the ‘ion thruster’ engines in spacecraft.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have already flown one such plane. Before you say ‘wow’, you must know that the ‘plane’ was more like a big kite. They applied a high voltage (40,000 V) at the horizontal electrodes — wires that span the plane. This ripped the electrons of the nitrogen atoms in the air, which then became positively charged ions. A back row of wires carried a negative charge and the positive ions rushed to them, colliding, in the process, with millions of neutral air molecules. Thus propelled, the plane sailed 200 feet at 17 kmph.

Just a fancy kite that has no future in aviation? Ask those who witnessed the Wright brothers’ first flight if they thought that, one day, aeroplanes could be carrying 600 people or battle tanks.

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Published on March 28, 2021
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