What is an ion wind plane?

This futuristic concept could revolutionise aviation with silent and non-polluting power systems

Image credit: Future PLC

Air travel is one of the greatest barriers to reducing carbon emissions. Fossil fuel-powered jets and propellers have been the kings of aviation ever since the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903, but the ion wind plane, developed by physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could be a game-changer. In late 2018, it became the first ‘aircraft’ weighing more than a few grams and with no moving parts to achieve sustained flight.

Known by its working name, ‘Version Two’, it’s powered by electro aerodynamics, using powerful lithium-polymer batteries to generate a high voltage that ionises nitrogen in the atmosphere. This creates an ionic wind, where supercharged ions collide into neutral air molecules and charge their electrons to create a silent forward thrust.

Version Two only managed a 60-metre flight, but its completion is a huge step in the right direction to reduce the reliance on the internal combustion engine for air travel. If the size of ion wind planes can be increased while still maintaining enough thrust, this technology could be pivotal in the growth of electrical and hybrid aircraft power systems. Version Two weighs just over 2.45 kilograms, but the batteries need to produce 40,000 volts to generate an ionic wind powerful enough for it to take off.

The big question is, can an even higher voltage be generated or can the process be made more efficient so less voltage is required? If the answer is yes, then the image of purely electric-powered long-haul passenger aircraft, transporting commuters and holidaymakers across the globe, without the need to burn fossil fuels, is an exciting one.

Creating the ion wind

How high-voltage batteries ‘energise’ the air to create forward thrust

Image credit: Future PLC

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 123

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