Pat Pilcher: New technology could transform aviation

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

My two passions both tend to involve guilt. As much as I love tech and travel, both tend to involve environmental mayhem and emit more carbon than my mums baking. Neither of which is a good thing from an environmental perspective.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology must also love long haul travel, because they've been working on a propulsion technology that has the potential to completely revolutionise air travel.

Going from A to B at the moment requires that a significant amount of aviation fuel is burnt by jet engines. This has the unfortunate effect of introducing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, along with a multitude of other environmental nasties that'd get the pulse of many a dedicated environmentalist and airline PR person going into overdrive. Equally worrying, fuel costs are often cited by airlines as being one of the major contributors to the high costs of air travel.

In the near future however, if the team at MIT have their way, electrically powered ionic wind thrusters will replace jet engines to provide energy-efficient and clean propulsion.

Warning Science Ahead
Ionic thrust is created when an electrical current is passed between two electrodes. The physics gives me a migraine, but cutting a long story short, it appears that if one electrode is thinner than the other, air flow happens in the space between the electrodes - Apply enough juice to the right electrode design and voila! You've got thrust and there's no need for fossil fuel.

The technology is called Ionic wind thrust and it isn't exactly new, having been talked up since the 1960s. Back then however most physics boffins dismissed it as being barely suitable for lightweight vehicles let alone commercial airliners weighing in at just shy of half a million kilos.

Efficiency
This is precisely where the geniuses at MIT research come into play. Having spent a considerable amount of time tinkering with ionic wind thrust technology, the MIT Gurus reckon that ionic wind thrusters could eventually be more efficient than the jet engines currently in use. During recent testing, they found that ionic wind thrusters were able to produce a staggering 110 newtons of thrust per kilowatt. Putting this into perspective, todays jet engines are able to produce about 2 newtons per kilowatt.

Efficiency aside, ionic wind thrusters also pack a few other side benefits. For a start they're virtually silent and give off no heat. Because of this, it is probable that commercial use would have to wait as the military benefits of a near silent propulsion system that emits next to no heat is going to be too good to refuse with stealth technologies becoming an increasingly strategic defence tool.

But....
Before you get too excited and throw away your noise cancelling headphones, there is one small gotcha.

Ionic thrusters depend on the wind produced between two electrodes - the larger the gap between the electrodes, the stronger the thrust. This means that small aircraft (and the electricity substation required to power its ionic wind thrusters) would translate into an impractically large gap between electrodes before you'd even consider getting aloft.

Not to be deterred, the brainiacs at MIT team reckon that this could simply be solved by completely covering an aircraft with ionic thrusters. So will ionic wind thrusters ever replace the circa 1940 jet engine technologies we've all become so dependent on? The team at MIT are pretty fired up about it. Me I'm quietly hoping.

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