A solid-state system runs without any moving parts. This is beneficial because it means less chance of something going wrong – the more moving parts there are, the more variables and the more components that can break. Solid states can also require less energy, as there’s nothing to move.
The image of a plane without a propeller or moving wings is something many people would have thought impossible just a few decades ago. Aspects of the technology that the plane runs on have been around for a long time, but only through modern ingenuity against the backdrop of an impending fuel crisis conceived a feasible design.
A solid-state plane is propelled by an ion drive that utilises the air around it to generate lift and thrust instead of fuel. The drive utilises an electric field generated by high voltage electrodes, which in turn generate ions by stripping electrons from nitrogen molecules via a process called corona discharge. This creates ions, charged particles which collide with the neutrally charged air molecules, pushing them behind the aircraft. This phenomenon is known as ‘ionic wind’, a concept which was first proposed in the 1920’s.
The solid-state plane currently only has a five-metre wingspan but is a definite step towards scalable technology that could disrupt Aviation. Created by Steven Barrett, an Aeronautics professor at MIT, the solid-state plane is the first of its kind, but by no means the last. Inspired by Star Trek, Barrett wanted to make a silent plane, and by removing the noise generated by moving parts he has succeeded in creating a truly futuristic piece of Aviation technology.
Most city airports are subject to noise laws to lower daily noise pollution. London Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports, has no flights taking off between midnight and 4:30am, purely due to the amount of noise the planes make.
Solid-state planes would be far quieter, running almost silently. This means they could potentially run all night, meaning a colossal increase in the number of flights.
Solid state planes would require electricity to run, so solar energy is the perfect fuel to power it. A solid-state aircraft would not need combustible fuel to power an engine, as there are no turbines, no propellers and no movement required. Currently the global Aviation industry is responsible for around 2.5% of the world’s carbon emissions, so a switch to a completely neutral fuel would significantly reduce the total Aviation emissions impacting the environment.
Any moving part, no matter how well made, will eventually break. All machines are subject to entropy, the gradual decline and eventual break down. A solid-state machine is no different, but the rate of decline will be much slower. This means less frequent need for repair and a more reliable plane over a longer lifespan. This would also save the industry money, as fleets would be a more secure investment. The new Aviation technology is perfect to be adapted to pseudo-satellites, and we may soon see solid-state drones.
Of course, this is all a long way off. The test plane currently converts just 2.6% of its electrical energy into thrust, and the thrust density was 300 times less than that of today’s commercial aircraft. However, the technology works and has the potential to change the entire Aviation industry if well-researched and utilised.