Plasma Jet Engines: The Future of Flight

Fagjun | Published 2017-06-14 18:35

Touch the sky in a new plasma engine-powered jet.

Having plasma jet engines is looking to be a real possibility for humanity.

But what's so special about plasma engines? Sure, they sound fancier, but what do they actually do? First, let's look at how the jet engines we have today work. These engines mix compressed air with fuel and subsequently ignite the mixture. This creates the necessary thrust to push jets off the ground and into the sky.

Traditional jet engines may be one their way out. For one thing, burning jet fuel isn't good for the environment. Jets also produce the pollutant PM2.5, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Plasma engines don't use fuel; they run on electricity and air. They use electromagnetic fields to compress a gas, usually argon or air, into plasma. Plasma, considered to be the fourth state of matter, is a hot ionized gas with electrically charged instead of neutral atomic particles. This ionized state is similar to the state inside a fusion reactor, or at the heart of a star.

Riding the Heart of a Star

The coolest-looking engine ever.
[Photo via iopscience.iop.org]

It seems that plasma jet engines are a somewhat novel idea. Most of previous research into plasma has focused on using it for satellites, not jets. However, a team of researchers at the University of Berlin aim to make plasma engines compatible with aircraft. In fact, Berkant Göksel and his team want to make engines that can surpass the engines of today.

We want to develop a system that can operate above an altitude of 30 kilometers where standard jet engines cannot go,” Göksel says. This means something very exciting. With plasma engines, our jets may be able to take us to the very edge of our atmosphere—even into space.

The team was able to create and test plasma jets that have proven to be quite fast at the ground level. Göksel boasts that the jets can reach a speed of up to 20 kilometers per second. Thus, they're gaining a lot in terms of creating an engine that can work both on the ground and high up in the atmosphere. This is a major breakthrough, as plasma engine designs are usually just compatible with vacuums or lower pressures.

The Possibility and Reality of Plasma Jet Engines

A compact fusion reactor by Lockheed Martin.
[Photo by Reuters/Lockheed Martin]

Of course, building jets like these isn't as easy as it sounds. One major problem that the team has to tackle is finding a source of electricity. A plasma jet engine would need to carry a battery as it makes its journey to toe the line between our atmosphere and space. However, today's batteries won't be able to cut it. If we want these jets to become a reality, we'd need to have lightweight batteries that can supply the necessary amount of energy. These batteries, however, are something that don't exist yet.

There are of course other alternative energy sources, like solar panels or compact fusion reactors. However, these aren't available yet, and we'd have to wait for advancements in these fields. Thus, plasma jet engines are entirely possible. Flying in a jet to the edge of our atmosphere is entirely possible. However, we'd have to wait for quite some time yet for the possibility to become a reality.

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