Scientists Develop Plasma Thruster That Could One Day Power Planes

(Bloomberg) -- Chinese scientists said they developed a plasma-thruster prototype that might one day lessen the aviation industry’s reliance on fossil fuel, bringing air travel free of carbon emissions a step closer to reality.

The device, built by a team from the Institute of Technological Sciences at Wuhan University, uses only air and electricity to generate propulsion with an efficiency comparable to a commercial jet engine under laboratory conditions. The team used the technology to lift a 1 kilogram (2.2 pound) steel ball over a quartz tube with a diameter of 24 millimeters (1 inch), it said in a paper published on Tuesday.

Plasma is the fourth fundamental state of matter beyond solid, liquid, and gas, consisting of an aggregate of charged ions. The team compressed air into high pressures and used microwaves to ionize it, which is then expelled to create propulsion. The researchers said a scaled-up system could provide enough power for an aircraft.

The team said its method differs from other types of plasma jet thrusters in that it compresses and ionizes air instead of xenon, argon, or hydrogen as used by spacecraft. The team is working on improving the efficiency of its device.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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