A solid-state airplane without jets or propellers, and with no moving parts at all, has successfully taken flight for the first time, opening the door to carbon-neutral air travel, according to The Guardian. The silent craft uses “ionic wind” technology, with an electric field that generates charged nitrogen ions to produce thrust. Such a plane would not need to refuel, and in theory, would not need to be repaired.

A paper published in this week’s edition of the journal Nature described the breakthrough, with MIT aeronautics professor Steven Barrett as lead author. The plane travelled 60 meters at 4.8 meters (16 feet) per second.

Its engine uses high voltage electrodes which include a wire with a high positive charge and a negatively charged airfoil. The engine ionizes nitrogen from the atmosphere, which moves from the wires to the airfoil. These ions then push neutral air molecules behind the airplane, generating thrust.

Barrett says he was initially inspired to create the world’s first solid-state airplane by science fiction:

“I was a big fan of Star Trek, and at that point I thought that the future looked like it should be planes that fly silently, with no moving parts – and maybe have a blue glow. But certainly no propellers or turbines or anything like that. So I started looking into what physics might make flight with no moving parts possible, and came across a concept known as the ionic wind, with was first investigated in the 1920s.”

But the technology stagnated for use in an airplane until Barrett began working with graduate students to harness the effect for propulsion.

Simply called “Version Two,” the plane weighs only 2.45 kilograms, but has a five-meter wingspan.

The 60-meter flight is only the beginning. The researchers plan to improve the plane’s range and speed, by scaling up in size. In fact, the results suggested performance would only increase with speed, reaching as much as 50 percent higher efficiency at 300 meters (980 feet) per second. And with fine wires acting as an engine, scaling up the concept would not result in more drag.

In the near future, the technology could be used for silent unmanned drones, and high-altitude solar flight, with the absence of moving parts allowing the plane to fly continuously, functioning similarly to a satellite. Eventually, flight powered only by electricity could even allow for carbon-neutral air travel.

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