Star Trek-inspired plane uses ionic wind to fly with no moving parts

There is no shortage of “Trekkies” in the wild. They can be found flocking to sci-fi conventions and learning Klingon on DuoLingo. But how many of them have used their love of “Star Trek” to revolutionise flight? Steven Barrett might have that claim to fame after a test of his aircraft powered by ionic wind. Barrett, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, drew inspiration from spacecrafts on “Star Trek” that seemed to glide without moving parts.

“This made me think, in the long-term future, planes shouldn’t have propellers and turbines,” Barrett said. “They should be more like the shuttles in ‘Star Trek,’ that have just a blue glow and silently glide.”

Attempting to produce such a craft in real life, Barrett hit upon the idea of ionic wind nine years ago. Identified almost a century ago, ionic wind is a thrust produced when current goes through a thin and a thick electrode. It was previously thought that making enough ionic wind to power sustained flight for a large aircraft was a pipe dream, but Barrett and his team showed otherwise when their 5-pound craft with a 5-metre wingspan a distance of 60 metres.

“This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system,” Barrett said. “This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions.”

Barrett sees the ionic wind technology first going toward making less-noisy drones before pairing with conventional combustion systems for fuel-efficient aircraft. He cautioned, though, that there was much work to come before that is a reality.

“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.”

Thin wires are strung along and beneath the front end of the wing act as positively charged electrodes, while thicker wires along back of the wing are positive electrodes. The fuselage holds lithium polymer batteries capable of producing 40,000 volts to charge the wires through a converter. Once energized, the front wires suck up negatively charged electrons from the surrounding air. The ionized molecules then flock to the negative electrodes in back, colliding with other air molecules and creating a forward thrust.

“The strength of the results are a direct proof that steady flight of a drone with ionic wind is sustainable,” said Franck Plouraboue of the Institute of Fluid Mechanics in Toulouse, France. “It is difficult to infer how much it could influence aircraft propulsion in the future. Nevertheless, this is not really a weakness, but rather an opening for future progress in a field which is now going to burst.”

The craft might not be ready for Starfleet, but it’s a breakthrough nonetheless.