Are the words hot and dense familiar to you? Yes, these words sound a lot like the first line from the famous Big Bang Theory’s Theme song. Most of you also remember the second line, when expansion started continuously.
Now imagine we could apply this hot, dense and ionized state to something that helps us in our plans to expand as space travelers. Actually, that’s a pretty correct description of something we call Plasma and guess what: we already have such a plasma jet engine.
This engine uses electricity to generate electromagnetic fields through a process of compression and exciting gas into a plasma, hence creating the state known from the Big Bang or the more current states found inside a fusion reactor and, of course, stars.
So, what are we waiting for? Research on plasma engines has never seen a true lift-off, being limited to possible usage in satellites once in space, which is interesting as they could be the best solution to propel any aircraft to the edge of our atmosphere and into space. Right now, we also burn an absurd amount of fossil fuels to get us there with high risks and even higher costs attached.
Here come Berkant Göksel and his team from the Technical University of Berlin on their very own mission to space, a mission stipulating to fit these plasma engines to planes. Göksel recently stated in a paper published in the Journal of Physics Conference Series that:
“We want to develop a system that can operate above an altitude of 30 kilometers where standard jet engines cannot go," - meaning the plasma engine could take passengers up into space and providing space agencies with a much more cost effective way of supporting their programs.
The biggest challenge though arises from the combination of take-off capabilities and flying at high altitudes, all packed in one neat system.
Göksel seems rather confident and talked about the current state of his engine in more detail in an interview with New Scientist:
“We are the first to produce fast and powerful plasma jets at ground level,” he said, adding that “These jets of plasma can reach speeds of up to 20 kilometers a second.”
The sky doesn’t seem to be the limit at those speeds (roughly 44,739 mph), but there are obstacles nonetheless. The plasma engine needs a constant stream of electric discharges to get the ionized gas all fired up. If the team would rely on the tiny plasma thrusters currently in use no commercial aircraft could be fitted with such an engine. They would need to find a way of reducing the number of thrusters from 10,000 to something between 100 and 1,000.
While this is an achievable short-term goal, on the long run, the electricity – the power of the engine – will instantly eat up any battery thrown at it. The critical aspect remains the balance between weight and capacity of such batteries. Dan Lev, from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, weighed in on that aspect with New Scientist, concluding that “An array of thrusters would require a small electrical power plant, which would be impossible to mount on an aircraft with today’s technology,”.
Even though this sounds like a typical chicken-or-egg question, the German scientist remains very positive, hoping for breakthroughs in solar and compact fusion technology that we know is already in development for use on aircraft and spacecraft alike.
To continue their mission, the team concentrates on hybrid solutions to bridge any gap while reducing the number of thrusters to further bolster their expertise on the so-called Air-Breathing Magneto-Plasma Propulsion System.
In the meantime, you can hum along with Barenaked Ladies’ popular song:
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