Bringing Star Trek to Earth: Ion Thrusters and Airplanes

'Anti-gravity' ion thrusters can power a tiny plane.

When we think of getting on an airplane we think of the constant hum of the engines running. Even other vehicles that fly, such as drones, or helicopters, rely on the whirl of a motor and the drip of fuel. This is a far cry from the cool jets we find in science fiction shows like Star Trek. 

We grew up seeing the Voyager move silently through space, able to cover indescribable distances with seemingly infinite fuel reserves. This new breakthrough from a team at MIT won't be taking you to California, or Mars anytime soon. BUT, they were able to show proof of concept! For the first time ever these researchers created what some could call an anti-gravity machine.

Their plane runs on no fuel and has no moving parts to create the thrust that holds it in the air and pushes it forward. If they aren't using fuel, what powers this novel device?

Ion thrusters.

The plane's wings are made of long strips of metal, some formed in the shape of a typical plane wing. The metal on the front of the craft is charged to 20,000 volts, while the metal at the back of the craft is charged to -20,000 volts. All that voltage between the two is enough to ionize air. Literally. 

Then the positively charged ions in from the nitrogen in our airflow to the negatively charged plate in the back. As ions flow from front to back they collide, and push, air molecules out of the way. By doing so they create a wind, an ion thruster wind. As the wind is moved past the typically formed wings if creates both the lift to defy gravity and the propulsion to move forward.

Learn more about these cool new ion thrusters in the video below! Want to make your own silent planes? Check out our LED paper airplane templates! They don't use ion thrusters, but they are super fun to create and fly!