MIT Researchers Create Engine with No Moving Parts

The aircraft's LEAP 1-B engine. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

It’s no secret that AvGeeks enjoy the roar of airplane engines. There’s nothing like sitting on a plane hurtling down the runway with the engines roaring with energy ready to lift the plane into the sky. The engines give an aircraft a feeling of power and strength. It’s comforting at times to hear the steady roar of engines at 35,000 feet knowing that they’re tirelessly working to get to your destination safely.

However, what if engines didn’t make any noise? What if there was no turbofan design? What would happen if someone were to make an aircraft engine that had no moving parts?

This is exactly what a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are trying to accomplish. This past month they took another step towards a new aircraft technology that has the potential to revolutionize the industry in the future.

Ionic Wind

The team used a concept called “ionic wind” or electro-aerodynamic thrust to design an engine of sorts that has the potential to make aircraft quieter, simpler, and more environmentally friendly.

The principle behind this is based on using electrodes to strip electrons from air molecules. These ionized air molecules are then drawn to the other electrode due to differences in charge and thus pushing uncharged air molecules out of the way resulting in thrust.

A mock-up of the aircraft which will be propelled by ionic wind. (Photo: MIT Electric Aircraft Initiative)

While this isn’t completely new technology, it has long been thought that it generally wasn’t possible to feasibly create enough thrust to actually propel things as large as a commercial aircraft.

MIT Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Steven Barrett said he and his team were partly inspired by Star Trek and their futuristic propulsion systems.

The team produced a glider with a 5-meter wingspan that weighs only 5 pounds. Electrodes were fitted on the wings along with lithium batteries to supply the aircraft with power. The team has been able to fly the glider about 55 meters across a gym using this “ionic wind.”

Potential to Grow

While this is nowhere near the power required to get a commercial aircraft off the ground it’s a proof of concept that an ion plane could fly. There still is a need for the technology to be more efficient so it can fly longer says Barrett.

He likens it to the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk which flew approximately 35 meters. It wasn’t much when it first flew but it really kicked things off. Barrett hopes that sometime in the next century we’re flying around on ion-propelled aircraft.

Hemal Gosai

Hemal Gosai

Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.
Hemal Gosai