MIT Developing Ionic Wind Thrusters as Efficient Alternative to Jet Engines

by , 04/09/13

ion thrusters, ionic wind thrusters, ion engines, MIT, airline engine, airline propulsion, atmospheric propulsion technologies, ionic power, ion energy, proceedings of the royal society, ionic propulsionIon thruster photo from NASA

A team from MIT is working on developing ionic wind thrusters as an energy-efficient, low-emission alternative to conventional propulsion technologies like jet engines. The new thrusters would use ionic energy, which is created when a current passes between two electrodes. If one electrode is thinner than the other, it creates an air current in the space between them – and if a substantial voltage is applied, the device could produce powerful thrust without the need for fuel or motors.

ion thrusters, ionic wind thrusters, ion engines, MIT, airline engine, airline propulsion, atmospheric propulsion technologies, ionic power, ion energy, proceedings of the royal society, ionic propulsionIon thruster photo from NASA

Ionic wind thrusters have been discussed ever since the 1960s, but up till now they’ve been dismissed as impractical or suitable only for lightweight vehicles. However the MIT research team now believes that the technology could potentially power commercial airlines.

Following a series of experiments, the MIT team announced that ionic thrusters could be more efficient than engines currently used in the aerospace industry. In their research, which was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, they stated that ionic wind thrusters could produce 110 newtons of thrust per kilowatt, while a jet engine would produce 2 newtons per kilowatt.

Steven Barrett, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, added that ionic thrusters are silent and invisible in infrared, as they give off no heat. “You could imagine all sorts of military or security benefits to having a silent propulsion system with no infrared signature,” says Barrett, who co-authored the paper with graduate student Kento Masuyama.

There is currently one thing blocking the future development of ionic engines – thrust density. Ionic thrusters depend on the wind produced between two electrodes, and the larger the space between the electrodes, the stronger the thrust. This means lifting a small aircraft and its power supply would require a very large air gap. The MIT team believe that this could be overcome by encompassing the entire vehicle in thrusters!

“Efficiency is probably the number one thing overall that drives aircraft design,” Barrett says. “[Ionic thrusters] are viable insofar as they are efficient. There are still unanswered questions, but because they seem so efficient, it’s definitely worth investigating further.”


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  1. David Adams March 27, 2015 at 8:54 am

    Properly neutralized Ion engine doesn’t produce ozone. There is no problem with the ion concept. The problem is in single input large output. They are currently working on micro thrusters. The construction of quantum dot substrate backed bye a capacitance substrate magnetically pulsed without the use of xenon gas will be the way they produce lift eventually. The Ion thrusters will then easily move a craft needing much less thrust as the craft will generate a wake that will not generate drag. Sadly this is 50+ year old tech

  2. FaridMaz August 24, 2014 at 10:41 am

    An advanced challenge to realize dreams to built an UFO likes spacecrafts! By combining large size of arc-plate wing model like commonly describe in UFO object, implement this Microwave Thruster to drift laminar airflow over the wing surface to generate lift, and prolong those extra thrust flow directly backward, powered by micronuclear fusion electric generator

  3. LoKwashus May 11, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    Why not use micro thrusters in front of the blades of an axial flow jet engine? Many small thrusters equals one one big umph (a hybrid ion/jet). Then put a charged wire in front of the charged wing. Reduce skin friction and add lift. I’m not describing the B2, am I?

  4. Leroy Knopfler August 25, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    The military will be on that in a heartbeat.

  5. hopponit August 12, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Just a thought off the top of my head, instead of using this for thrust traditionally. If you are ringing the vehicle in a thruster, use it on a hover-craft. Contain the lift by using the skirts to trap the thrust. Most hover-craft are large, and a little ungainly already. Going big wouldn’t be a draw-back. Duct some of the lift to use for foreward thrust. This would negate the problem of a large frontal area.

  6. Forrest Higgs August 12, 2013 at 10:11 am

    I wonder where the electricity to drive such a thruster is supposed to come from?

  7. ibrahimhomsi August 12, 2013 at 6:20 am

    I can solve/fix their problem in regards to Thrust Density being limited within Earth’s Atmosphere. No sense in adding more ionic thrusters to the vehicle. More weight = More work required to generate lift and thrust.

  8. lionman May 16, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    Hi Howard,
    you must recall your last vision “jet engines are the way of the future”,,, well you will become correct!
    Calm down Chas,, According to the now decades of [failed] research to become useful, ozone has never been a problem,,,

  9. Howard Hughes May 3, 2013 at 11:47 am

    @Charli You are right, current jet engines do not produce any polluting emissions.

  10. charli April 11, 2013 at 10:32 am

    And what of the massive amounts of ozone these ion jets would pump into the atmosphere? Sure it’s great when suspended in the stratosphere, but down here where we live it’s a dangerous pollution.

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