Nowadays, there has been a lot of talk about electric vehicles, and their growth is evident by the increase in the number of EVs on the roads. Several automakers are working hard towards eliminating internal combustion engines in cars, but what about airplanes? Fully electric aviation could be closer than you think as a group of researchers has designed a new jet engine that’s capable of flying around the world without emissions. Here is everything you need to know about the electric jet engine that may world. Make sure to not miss all the important details.

Fuel-powered aircraft have already revolutionized human life in their way, but the time has come to get over them as we are on the verge of having aircraft fly from the ground up to the sky using just air and electricity. Flying is one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions and researchers have spent years hunting for alternative technologies to cut flying’s carbon footprint but finding a new technology that is powerful enough to carry a jumbo passenger jet has proved elusive. Although batteries are used in electric cars to power their motion, they are impractical to power large aircraft, so some researchers have proved that the answer to zero-emission flight lies in something called an electric jet engine.

Plasma jet engine


A team of Chinese researchers made a powerful breakthrough with this civilization-shifting potential jet engine. Instead of fuel, electric jet engines also known as plasma jet engines use electricity to generate electromagnetic fields which compress and excite a gas, such as air or argon, into a plasma—a hot, dense ionized state similar to that inside a fusion reactor or star. Plasma is the fourth state of matter after solid, gas, and liquid. It’s a form of electrically charged gas, which when activated can cause surges of energy. Engines based on plasma have been stuck in the laboratory for past decades as research on them has been largely limited to the idea of using them in outer space only—in the absence of air friction. But the team of researchers from the Institute of Technical Sciences at Wuhan University made it known that they’ve overcome longtime atmospheric issues like air friction and made a jet engine capable of turning electricity into direct thrust in a way similar to conventional jet engines. The researchers claimed that the jet engine is so powerful that it can power spaceships. Although a jet-powered electrically with a plasma jet engine may sound like something from science fiction— just like the jets on Iron Man’s suit in the Marvel movies, with the discovery, electric aviation may soon become a reality. The researchers claimed that the goal of the experiment is to use air and electricity to replace gasoline thereby reducing carbon emissions which cause global warming—a major threat to human civilization.

The team leader, professor Jau Tang said he first stumbled onto the idea for the plasma jet engine thruster when he was trying to create synthetic diamonds. As he tried to grow them using microwaves, he started to wonder whether the same technology could be used to produce thrust. Conventional jet engines create thrust by mixing compressed air with fuel and igniting it. The burning mixture then expands rapidly and it is blasted out of the back of the engine, propelling the jet. Instead of burning fuel to heat air, the new electric jet engine generates propulsion from hot ionized air—plasma.

Microwave air plasma jet thruster


Describing the experiment, the researchers made it known that they used a high-power microwave source with materials that are highly resistant to high temperature and pressure, to generate a high-performance microwave air plasma jet thruster. In the small laboratory setup, they used an air compressor to force high-pressure air at a rate of 30 liters per minute into an ionization chamber that ionizes the air after which the ionized air is sent into a microwave which strips the ionized air of its electrons, turning it into a plasma with a positive charge, which is then blasted out of a quartz tube. The plasma temperature exceeded 1,000 degrees Celsius. It was explained that the hot plasma blasted through the quartz tube using only 400 watts of microwave power and was able to lift a steel ball weighing about one kilogram, 24 millimeters into the air. This means that if the experiment could be scaled up, that is, increasing the microwave power and the compressed air inlet stream to the standard of an actual jet engine, then it could be used to power aircraft which would reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Building a megawatt-strength plasma engine


The researchers estimated that the jet pressure from their device reached 2,400 newtons per square meter, comparable to that from a commercial airplane jet engine. They are currently focused on scaling up the power of the system, and they claimed that if they can build a megawatt-strength plasma engine capable of driving a real airplane, then, they can pay attention to ways to reduce weight and size. The researchers made it known that the scaling up will be happening fast, as it is said that in five years, the scaled-up plasma jet engine could power heavy-duty drones that can carry cargo for shipping. For the plasma jet engine to power a jumbo jet, it would require a large array of megawatt microwave sources, high-power turbine compressors, and an extremely high electric energy storage capability, so it will likely take a decade to see an aircraft using the electric jet engine.

They also plan to take up the automotive industry with the plasma jet engine-powered electric vehicle

The researchers didn’t rest their laurels on using the plasma electric jet engine to power aircraft alone, they also plan to take up the automotive industry with the plasma jet engine-powered electric vehicle. Professor Jau Tang said: “I think the jet engine is more efficient than the electric motor, you can drive a car at a much faster speed. That’s what I have in mind: to combine the plasma jet engine with a turbine to drive a car.” And it’s not just the automobile industry alone, Tang also brought up the possibilities of using the plasma jet engine technology to build projectile weapons, launch spaceships, power boats, and even create a new type of stove for cooking. They made it known that they have already built a prototype stove powered by plasma air—but currently, it is so loud that it sounds like a constant lightning strike, and they plan on working further to reduce the noise.

The scientist also made it known that they do not have an interest in commercializing the jet engine, but they made the discovery known to the world in the hope that government agencies, aerospace companies, or some titans of the aviation industry will be inspired to take the ideas and run with them. This is because the step toward the realization of a full plasma jet engine would cost a lot of money, energy, and time. The Chinese scientist plasma jet engine experiment is not the first of its kind, there have been several types of research and experiments on plasma thrusters. Every attempt by many engineers and researchers to build a jet plasma engine has been smacked down and has never made it out of the laboratory because issues begin to pop up when working out the logistics of building an airplane that works with the concept.

Attempts of using plasma thruster

Although plasma thrusters have not been used to create a practical jet engine, it has been used in spacecraft with the first pulsed plasma thrusters deployed as long ago as the 1960s. But these thrusters are quite weak and not capable of operating in the atmosphere. In 2018, a research team from MIT demonstrated a plasma-powered microlight glider, which also has relatively weak thrust but can operate for a short time in the atmosphere. Plasma jet thrusters have also been used before to power NASA satellites in outer space, but they were not powerful enough to fuel flight within the Earth’s atmosphere. Right now, it is difficult to evaluate whether the newly developed jet engine prototype will make it out of the laboratory and become practical, but it will be amazing to see a working plasma jet engine that could move the aviation industry much closer to zero-emission. And if this plasma technology works out, then the world of aviation will never be the same.

What do you think about the electric plasma jet engine and the future of aviation?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *