Reinventing aircraft propulsion

Steven Barrett
February 27, 2018

Is it possible to develop a propulsion system for drones and airplanes that involves no moving parts? That's the question that AeroAstro Professor Steven Barrett will explore with a Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grant as he works on developing solid-state atmospheric propulsion technology.

Named for the late Amar Bose '51, SM '52, ScD '56, a longtime MIT faculty member and the founder of the Bose Corporation, the Bose Grants supportsMIT facultys' innovative and potentially paradigm-shifting research ideas.

"If you think about the history of aviation at a sort of fundamental level, the way in which aircraft are being propelled, the source of thrust, hasn't changed for over 100 years. It still needs a propeller or a turbine," Barrett explains.

Barrett's research will employ a principle that involves ionizing air and accelerating the ionized air in an electrostatic field. As the accelerated ions collide with air molecules, they transfer momentum, creating a propulsive force.

"We have experiments that characterize the physics, efficiency, and effectiveness of creating this sort of propulsive force, and we've created simple prototypes as well," Barrett says. "The next stage will be to try and make propulsion systems that are solid state that have the potential to be practically useful."

For example, Barrett would like to integrate a solid-state propulsion system into the skin of an aircraft, eliminating the need for external engines or propellers. "The aircraft would pull itself through the air by ionizing air over its surface and then accelerating that air electrostatically," Barrett explains.

Barrett is excited to use his Bose Grant to see how far forward he can push solid-state propulsion technology. "I think this project fits into the spirit of Bose, which is to do things that are clearly unconventional, high risk, and where you don't really know if it's going to work or not, but you think it's worth taking a risk," he says.