SOMETHING NEW UNDER THE SUN – AERONAUTICS

When we talk about ALL THE MOVING PARTS in organizations and how critical it is for all those parts to be in alignment and working in sync, that circumstance is even more critical in airplanes, that are made up of a large number of moving parts.

Since airplanes were first invented and flown, every plane in the sky has relied on something that keeps them in the air – propellers or turbine blades or fans – different for different planes, but all of which produce a persistent noise that signifies that the plane is flying.  With the recent commercial aircraft accidents that are being scrutinized for which of their moving parts failed to move appropriately, it’s of interest to note that MIT engineers have completed the first-ever plane that has no moving parts.  And, even better, they’ve flown the plane to prove the concept of viability.  Instead of propellers or turbines, the new light aircraft (that’s pilot-speak for a small plane) is powered by an “ionic wind” – which means that it is powered by a silent but mighty flow of ions that is produced aboard the plane.  The “ionic thrust” produces enough power to propel the plane through a sustained, steady flight.  And, unlike aviation gas-fueled planes, the new plane doesn’t rely on fossil fuels to fly.  As well, the moving parts that make all other planes fly sometimes cause unacceptable levels of engine noise over residential areas. An advantage of this plane is that it is completely silent while in flight.  One of the plane’s designers, Steven Barrett, Professor at MIT, states that, “This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system . . .[as a result] This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions.”  A wave of the future, perhaps.  Barrett says that for the near-term, he sees a use for transitioning some of the noisier drones into ion wind propulsion systems.  Further out, he envisions ion propulsion systems paired with conventional combustion systems to create more fuel-efficient, hybrid passenger planes and other large aircraft.  As a child, Barrett watched the StarTrek series and was enamored with the shuttles that had a blue glow and silently glided.  About nine years ago, Barrett started looking for ways to design a propulsion system for planes with no moving parts.  He eventually found “ionic wind”  – also known as electroaerodynamic thrust – which is a physical principal that was first identified in the 1920s.  The principle operates by producing a wind, or thrust, that can be developed when current is passed through a thin and thick electrode.  If enough voltage is applied, the air in between the electrodes can produce enough thrust to propel a small aircraft.  Early on, it was assumed that it would be impossible to produce enough thrust to propel large aircraft, but that has now been proven to be possible.  MIT’s prototype design resembles a large, lightweight glider, weighs about 5 pounds (no engines to add weight) and has a 5-meter wingspan.  The fuselage holds a stack of lithium-polymer batteries which convert to a sufficiently high enough voltage to propel the plane.  In this way,  the batteries supply electricity at 40,000 watts to positively charge the wires via a lightweight power converter.  Once energized, the wires attract and strip away negatively charged electrons from the surrounding air molecules.  The molecules left behind are newly ionized and are attracted to the negatively charged electrodes at the back of the plane – thus thrust is created that propels the aircraft forward.  Barrett says that this was the simplest possible plane that the team could design that would prove the concept that an ion plane could fly.  Who’s ready to go for a ride – ? Maybe not now, but we’ll likely all be doing that on commercial planes in the future.

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