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Ion drive space engine used on aircraft for first time

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Imagine an aircraft engine that has no moving parts, produces no harmful exhaust and makes no noise. That's what researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US have created by adapting a technology previously only used in spacecraft so it can power flight over the Earth.

Ion drives have been used on spacecraft since the 1960s and work by firing out a stream of charged particles that propel the vessel forward. As well as being carbon neutral, they are less likely to go wrong and cheaper to maintain than conventional engines because they have no propellers, turbines or fuel pumps to break down. The only problem was that, in Earth's gravity, the thrust produced by the drive wasn't enough to overcome the weight of the batteries needed to power them. Until now.

The timely new research, published in Nature, paves the way for the possibility of silent drones in the very near future. With further advances in materials and power conversion, silent crewed aircraft and eventually commercial flights could also be on the horizon. In fact, this breakthrough could be the first step in changing how we all fly around the world in the future. 

All aircraft engines work by pushing something backwards so that the craft moves forward. Usually this is air, whether cold air driven by electric propellers or hot air fired out by jet engines. Ion propulsion instead sends out charged particles or ions generated in the gap between two electrodes with a high voltage inbetween. The ions interact with the air, creating an ionic wind that is sent backwards, propelling the aircraft forward. 

As with propeller-driven solar powered aircraft, ion drive craft are powered by electricity and so don't need to carry fuel, other than batteries filled with charged particles. The new research shows that, with some clever modifications to the battery setup and the way the electrical power is converted, it's possible to reduce the battery weight enough to make this technology fly.

Compromise design

A craft with an ion drive also needs a large front area to generate the ionic wind in the right way. But this would usually make the aircraft heavier, so the researchers had to balance these conflicting limitations. They designed a wingspan that was small enough to reduce risks and make the testing cheaper and easier, while being large enough to use standard remote control components. 

The researchers flew ten flights using an aircraft with a 5-metre wingspan, weighing less than 2.5 kilograms. They were able to fly it for up to 9 seconds over a distance of 45 metres at a speed of 5 metres a second. The craft needed around 20 seconds to build up its power and was then launched using a mechanical bungee system.

While this flight time and distance might not seem like much, the researchers point out that they're actually similar to the those of the first flight of aeroplane inventors the Wright Brothers in 1903. Making further advances in materials and power electronics, and optimising the airframe, could enable the craft to fly faster and for longer. It may also be possible to use solar panels to generate the electricity needed to power the ion drive.

One of the big advantages of an ion-powered craft is its near-zero levels of noise. So it's likely the technology will find its first application in silent drones. Its lack of moving parts should make it relatively easy to scale the system down for smaller craft and make it easier to scale up. But bigger craft will also need a bigger increase in power. To build an ion-powered airliner you would need to increased the amount of power relative to the craft's size 300 fold. 

But look how far we have come since the Wright Brothers' first flight. The sky may be the limit with this new technology.

Journal reference: Nature

Provided by: The Conversation

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Not exactly .... in Star Trek, the Impulse drive is an incredibly strong magnetic coil that accelerates a fusion plasma ( waste product of  completed fusion process) rearward at near relativistic speeds, to propel the space craft  up to speeds approaching 1/4 the speed of light.

It has a TREMENDOUS PUNCH when they push "the pedal to the metal".

An Ion engine or drive is a weak, slow, steady push that away from a gravity well, can do the same thing ... but it may take centuries to get up to 1/4 the speed of light. 

Its like the difference between pushing something with a missile, or your finger.

The aircraft mentioned above essentially ionizes the air with ions, and uses the air as reaction mass, and expelling it rearward.  In Space, that can be done with electricity alone, assuming you have a power supply that will produce sufficient electrons.

The way the fictional "Warp Drive" works is that it shortens Space in front of the Star Ship, and makes Space longer behind the Star Ship, and the ship travels in a bubble that is essentially moving faster than the speed of light, by warping Space, itself.

An interesting effect is that .... just as you view light from our nearest extra-solar Centauri star system, you are seeing it as it was 4-1/2 years ago .... not now .... from Earth, , travel there in a day or so, by warp drive, would send you 4-1/2 years into THEIR apparent  past.

Fortunately, the Universe was designed so all time is LOCAL, and each atom runs on it's own clock, depending on velocity, and the gravity field it is in at any particular moment.

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Guest Ethan Krauss

Actually the first Ion propelled aircraft to carry its power supply is listed under US Patent # 10,119,527. Here is the website for anyone that is interested. electronairllc.org.

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I was actually responsible for the U.S. Patent Office dropping their requirement that mechanical, electronic Patents demonstrate the practicality and utility of patents.  (That means, for those in Rio Linda, that the gadget actually works). Since then, you can submit Patent Applications for Patent Pending status ( The first step in getting a Patent ..... ), like the aforementioned atmospheric ion engine, without a working model.

I was talking to a Patent Examiner in Arlington, Virginia in his three story office across the street from a Holiday Inn,  and I had a working model of my invention in my arms, and he asked to see it.

I gave it to him, and from behind his massive desk, he turns around and sticks the snout out the window and aiming it at the street and sidewalk below, activates it.

"BOY! This is a really GREAT Death Ray !

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