If you want to fly, you’ve got to move, right? Birds flap, propellers whirr, and if you’ve ever watched the spiral painted on the middle of a jet engine, you’ll know they spin too. But recently, researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States created a plane with no moving parts at all. No spinning blades, no fuel pumps, nothing!
Regular planes need moving parts to use their petroleum-based fuel. So this plane takes a different approach. It’s electric, but it doesn’t have typical electric motors. Instead, it uses wires and an awful lot of voltage.
Wires at the front of the plane are charged up to 20 000 volts, enough to start ripping electrons from passing air molecules. This gives the air a positive electric charge. At the rear of the plane, the wings have a strong negative charge, approximately -20 000 volts. The positive air molecules are attracted to the negative wings. As the charged air moves to the back, it creates what is known as an ‘ionic wind’, which pushes the whole plane forwards!
This first plane is not very powerful. It doesn’t take off under its own power – it needs to be launched from a catapult. It takes all the power the plane has to keep going at the same speed without stalling or crashing. Its longest flights have been about 60 metres, or about two basketball courts end to end. Still, that’s further than the Wright brothers’ first flights.
Although there’s still a lot of work to be done, it’s not hard to see where this quiet system could be useful. A company called Wing is currently trialling drone-based parcel delivery in Canberra, and there have been noise complaints about buzzing propellers. This ionic wind based system is silent. And as an added bonus, the system has a faint blue glow – a science fiction twist to a cutting edge invention!
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