Nov. 26 (UPI) -- Engineers have conducted the first-ever flight powered by ionic thrust technology. It's the first time a plane has flown sans moving parts.
The aircraft is powered by several electric engines that produce and expel charged particles. Ionic wind, or ionic thrust, is sometimes called electroaerodynamic thrust. The technology has been proven in space, but creating momentum in a relative vacuum is easier than moving through Earth's thick atmosphere.
Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, spent nearly a decade translating the technology for use on Earth.
The latest version of Barrett's plane features two rows of long metal strands, pairs of thick and thin electrodes. When enough voltage is run through the front row, 40,000 volts of electricity, the electrons are stripped from the air in-between the two electrodes, yielding nitrogen ions. Because the back row carried a negative charge, the ions rush toward the wire, producing an electroaerodynamic thrust.
During the most recent test flight, the thrust was powerful enough to keep the craft airborne for nearly 200 feet. The plane glided across the room at 11 miles per hour.
Barrett and his research partners described the feat and the technology behind it this month in the journal Nature.
"This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions," Barrett told MIT News.
The newest prototype, which Barrett dubbed Version 2, looks like a small glider. It weighs just over five pounds and features a wingspan of more than 16 feet.
Of course, the plane isn't ready to carry passengers or cargo, but the craft proved electroaerodynamic thrust can be used to power airplanes on Earth.
"This was the simplest possible plane we could design that could prove the concept that an ion plane could fly," Barrett said. "It's still some way away from an aircraft that could perform a useful mission. It needs to be more efficient, fly for longer and fly outside."
Barrett and his colleagues will now begin work on making their thrust more powerful and their aircraft more efficient.
"It took a long time to get here," Barrett said. "Going from the basic principle to something that actually flies was a long journey of characterizing the physics, then coming up with the design and making it work. Now the possibilities for this kind of propulsion system are viable."