|Forget fuel-powered jet engines. We're on the verge of having aircraft
that can fly from the ground up to the edge of space using air and
Traditional jet engines create thrust by mixing compressed air with fuel
and igniting it. The burning mixture expands rapidly and is blasted out
of the back of the engine, pushing it forwards. Instead of fuel, plasma
jet engines use electricity to generate electromagnetic fields. These
compress and excite a gas into a plasma - a hot, dense ionised state
similar to that inside a fusion reactor or star.
Plasma engines have been stuck in the lab for the past decade or so. And
research on them has largely been limited to the idea of propelling
satellites once in space. Researchers from the Technical University of
Berlin now want to fit plasma engines to planes. The challenge was to
develop an air-breathing plasma propulsion engine that could be used for
take-off as well as high-altitude flying.
Plasma jet engines tend to be designed to work in a vacuum or the low
pressures found high in the atmosphere, where they would need to carry a
gas supply. But the team has tested one that can operate on air at a
pressure of one atmosphere.