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December 8, 2018

MIT Builds an Airplane with no Moving Parts

Turbine fans, propellers, and jet engines powered by the combustion of fossil fuels — that’s how you propel an airplane through the sky. But it may not always be that way.  

That’s because engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created and flown the first-ever airplane with zero moving parts.

It’s powered by ionic wind, a silent flow of ions produced aboard the plane that give the contraption enough thrust to fly for sustained periods of time.

“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 and astronautics at MIT.

The implications are significant: This could be the first step toward a new kind of flight that’s mechanically simple, doesn’t require combustion of fossil fuels, and doesn’t produce harmful emissions.

The first application for this technology will be drones. Then, it will likely be paired with traditional combustion-based engines in order to create more fuel efficient airplanes.

How does it work?

Ionic wind, also called electroaerodynamic thrust, was first proposed in the 1920s. It describes a physical principle whereby thrust can be produced when a current is passed between a thin and a thick electrode.

The MIT airplane is really more likely a lightweight glider. It weighs about 5 pounds and has a 5-meter wingspan. The bottom of the wings are covered with thin wires that act as positively charged electrodes. The topside of the wings are covered in thicker wires, which serve as negative electrodes.

A stack of lithium-polymer batteries in the fuselage provide the 40,000 volts necessary to charge the wires, attracting and stripping away negatively charged electrons from the surrounding air molecules and creating a cloud of negatively charged ions that rush backwards and create enough thrust to propel the plane forward.

Thus far, the contraption has flown a distance of 60 meters — the length of the gym they were experimenting in.

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