Can Air Travel Finally Be Guilt-free?

Travel lover PAT PILCHER gets excited about the potential for electro-aerodynamic-powered planes. Can travel finally be guilt free?

Some people smoke, but my guilty pleasure is travel. I love getting on a plane and going somewhere new. In darkest depths of the misery that is a Wellington winter, the northern hemisphere beckons with its promise of summer. Trouble is, when I say travel is my guilty pleasure, I’m really not kidding.  

Back in the 1940s scientists speculated that Venus would be a steamy hot world filled with lush tropical jungles. When the Russians managed to land the Venera probes, they instead found something more akin to hell. At the surface, Venus was 462 degrees C – hot enough to melt lead.

The sheer amount of what science calls greenhouse gases is the culprit. While heat from the sun can warm the surface, the re-radiated heat from the surface cannot escape as the greenhouse gases reflect it, preventing it from harmlessly radiating away into space. With nowhere to go, heat builds and builds.

So just what does this have to do with travel and a propulsion breakthrough? A similar phenomenon to Venus has been underway here on earth, with global temperatures steadily rising over the last 30 years. These gases are the result of vehicles, manufacturing and energy generation.  

According to the EU, aviation-related greenhouse gas emissions increased by a whopping 87 percent between 1990 and 2006. Burning all that jet fuel to get me to sunny resorts translates on a per passenger basis (assuming I’m stuck in economy with my knees around my ears, eating atrocious airline food flying from New York to Los Angeles) to anywhere between 715 kg to 1,917 kg of greenhouse gases. So by travelling, we’re all doing our bit to convert earth into a Venus-like hell, one flight at a time.

But there may be an answer. Scientists from MIT have developed an ion drive to propel aircraft. Unlike today’s jets and turboprops, there are no moving parts and no fuel is burned so there are no greenhouse gas emissions.

They’ve created what they call an electro-aerodynamic-powered plane. The team have successfully flown a test aircraft with a wingspan of five metres weighing 2.45 kilograms.

Its an ungainly looking contraption (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBai8uDwxCs), thanks to a series of thin electrodes stretched across thin wires running across its wings, behind which is an aerofoil. The electrodes on thin wires at the front have a positive charge of 20,000 volts. The aerofoils behind the electrodes are charged to negative 20,000 volts. This creates an electric field which sees electrons removed from nitrogen molecules in the air, producing ions. The ions accelerate to aerofoils, forming an ionic wind which generates thrust.

It is eerily quiet and lends the aircraft an almost sci-fi feel. That said, ion thruster technologies are nothing new – they’ve been used to maneuver spacecraft and satellites for years. The big difference is that spacecraft ionise a stored fuel whereas the plane’s thin wire electrodes ionise nitrogen already present in the atmosphere, and the plane is powered by a lithium-polymer battery.

The team’s leader, Steven Barrett says that at the moment the technology is best suited for drones which could see a considerable reduction in noise pollution. If the technology can be scaled up and made more efficient, guilt-free air travel could be possible. I can’t wait, even if flying economy class still sucks.

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