WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Plasma engines are the stuff of science fiction, and now it looks like they’re ready to come out of the labs and push new limits.
Imagine a jet engine that could propel an aircraft faster than a traditional engine and take it all the way to the edge of space without burning any fossil fuels. And for a fraction of the price, then crank the speed up to 123,000mph, and you have the concept that lies behind the plasma engines that are being developed in the labs around the world, including at NASA who recently fired up their own plasma jet engine. Now, a team of researchers from the Technical University of Berlin, who later this year will also be landing a Lunar Rover on the Moon, want to bring them out of the labs and into the real world.
Instead of burning fuels and compressed air and then directing the resulting hot noxious gas out of the nozzle of a traditional jet engine plasma engines mimic fusion reactors, the same energy system that powers every star in the universe.
They work by creating electricity that they use to excite and compress gas into a plasma, and then focus and contain it in an electromagnetic field. Led by Berkant Göksel, the team in Berlin are hopeful that they can marry the concept of a plasma engine with a passenger jet to produce a platform that could fly at very high altitudes but still take off and land like a conventional aircraft.
“We are the first to produce fast and powerful plasma jets at ground level,” said Göksel, “and these jets of plasma can reach speeds of up to 20 miles a second, and ultimately propel space craft at over 123,000mph”
Inevitably given the status of this still relatively new technology there are still several challenges that stand in the way of Göksel and his team’s ambitions. Firstly they’re using tiny plasma thrusters that are just 8 centimeters long and at that scale it would take over 10,000 of them to propel a commercial airliner, but for now the team plan on using between 100 and 1,000 to move a smaller aircraft and it’s thought that that’s an achievable goal.
Secondly, just like many things in this world the system runs on electricity and plasma engines are notoriously energy hungry beasts so the team will need to find batteries that are dense enough to carry a large charge but light enough to reduce the amount of thrust they need to produce in order to get airborne – the fact that their ultimate goal is to make the thrusters bigger only exacerbates the issue, and so far, this problem hasn’t been solved.
“An array of thrusters would require a small electrical power plant, which would be impossible to mount on an aircraft with today’s technology,” said Dan Lev, an expert in the field from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
That said though it was less than a decade ago when people were saying the same thing about the power plants needed to power combat ready direct energy weapons and next year we’ll begin seeing the first of several those platforms enter service in the US Airforce and beyond.
Meanwhile Göksel and his team are relying on outside power breakthroughs to bridge this gap, but fortunately for them they aren’t the only ones with a hunger for batteries because a certain billionaire polymath shares their thirst for bigger and better battery systems, namely Elon Musk, and he’s driving their development hard and fast.
Until this gap is filled though improvements in solar panels and truck sized fusion reactors could also come in handy, but even those would be challenging to integrate into an aircraft so until then it looks like they may have to create a hybrid aircraft that uses either rockets or pulse detonation combustion engines to fill the void.
Space – so near, yet so far away.