With the rising cost of jet fuel, scientists are always searching for alternative technology and power sources. Researchers at MIT are looking at ionic thrust technology to bridge the gap between jet fuel and propulsion efficiency.
The technology behind “ionic wind,” or electro-hydrodynamic thrust, was first discovered in the 1960s. Because of limitations in technology at the time, it was never considered a viable resource, because it would require massive amounts of voltage to sustain air flight. Now, however, researchers believe they may have found the key to unlocking the possibilities of electro-hydrodynamic thrust, or ionic thrust.
Here’s how it works, via MIT News: “When a current passes between two electrodes — one thinner than the other — it creates a wind in the air between. If enough voltage is applied, the resulting wind can produce a thrust without the help of motors or fuel.” Steven Barrett, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, believes ionic wind can be used to fuel and propel a small, lightweight aircraft.
In addition to propulsion efficiency, ionic thrust is virtually silent and is invisible in infrared because it doesn’t give off heat. Barrett contends that ionic-thrust aircraft are perfectly suited for surveillance vehicles. “You could imagine all sorts of military or security benefits to having a silent propulsion system with no infrared signature,” says Barrett. He also co-authored a paper with MIT graduate student Kento Masuyama in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.
An ionic thrust engine consists of three parts: a very thin copper electrode, a thicker tube of aluminum, and the air in between the apparatus, which is held together with wires that conduct the electrical current. A voltage is applied to the engine and new ionized molecules are created, which push the neutral air molecules along to create thrust. If enough wind is created, that thrust could be powerful enough to propel an aircraft.
The key to ionic thrust is efficiency. After all, if the ionic-thrust engine isn’t efficient, it cannot be a viable resource in jet propulsion. Aerospace company Lockheed Martin is looking into this technology, and chief scientist Ned Allen says there are some drawbacks with ionic thrust engines, but believes the technology “offers nearly miraculous potential.”