Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have flown a plane with no moving parts. Is this a significant event in aviation, the game changing moment that leads to electric planes?

How it Works

The futuristically named ion drive works by moving electricity at high voltage (20,000V) through electrodes at the front of an aerofoil, charging the particles of air in front.

At the back of the aerofoil, a negative high voltage (-20,000V) charges air molecules in the opposite way.

The positively and negatively charged air naturally move to equalise, creating an “ionic wind” of accelerated air – which keeps the plane flying.

The futuristically named ion drive works by moving electricity at high voltage (20,000V) through electrodes in front of an aerofoil, charging the particles of air in front.

At the back of the aerofoil, a negative high voltage (-20,000V) charges air molecules in the opposite way.

The positively and negatively charged air naturally move to equalise, creating an “ionic wind” of accelerated air – which keeps the plane flying.

Despite What You’ve Read, This isn’t New Tech

Ion drives have been used in spacecraft since the 1970s, when Soviet Union satellites used Hall-effect thrusters to maintain orbit. In fact, ionocraft have been built since the phenomenon of ionic drift was discovered in the 1920s.

Thomas Townsend Brown, the person behind the first experiments that produced ionic wind, mistook this marvel for antigravity. Brown’s proponents maintain to this day that he actually did discover antigravity – and that the denial and scrutiny of the technology is a cover up of its existence.

So, while we don’t want to dampen or scold the MIT team’s fantastic achievement, it’s a bit disingenuous to call it a world first – especially when there’s footage of others doing it in their home workshops (some arguably doing it better). But – it is the first time ionic propulsion has successfully been used in a plane/aerofoil format, even if it’s not the first flying machine.

Is Ion Drive the Future?

Probably not.

The internal combustion engine, when first introduced in 1853, could barely produce enough power for useful work. Within 100 years, it was powering trains, buses, cars, planes, ships – and anything else with wheels and wings.

By comparison, ion drive technology is almost a century old and remains woefully inefficient.

While you could argue that the Wright brothers started small, this ion driven plane, with centuries of collective study in ionic wind and aviation, can’t match Orville Wright’s first flight.

By MIT’s own admission, this tech isn’t going to fly people around. It might be useful for silent drones with further development, but right now it’s just a cool curiosity. We certainly hope it continues to develop – and if power generation and storage techniques improve, it’s not too outrageous to think that hybrids could be developed that use ion drive in some way.

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