Chinese Scientists Working on Zero-Carbon Plasma Jet Engines

Here’s an interesting piece of science news, courtesy of yesterday’s I, for 6th May 2020. According to the article by Madeleine Cuff, ‘Plasma jet engine could be used for zero-carbon passenger flights’, Chinese scientists are working on a new type of jet engine in which conventional aircraft fuel would be replaced by plasma – ionized gas. The article on page 28 runs

Scientists have designed a new kind of jet engine that may be able to fly planes halfway around the world without using fossil fuels.

The prototype, dreamed up by Chinese engineers, relies on thrusters powered by compressed air and electricity to create a zero-carbon flight.

Flying is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers have spent years hunting for low-carbon technologies to cut aviation’s carbon footprint, but finding a clean fuel source powerful enough to support a full-sized passenger jet has proved elusive.

A team at Wuhan university believes the answer lies in something called microwave air plasmas.

Beyond solid, liquid and gas, plasma is the fourth state of matter. It is a form of electrically charged gas, which – when activated – can cause surges of energy. 

Certain kinds of plasma jet thrusters have been used before to power Nasa probes in space, but they were not powerful enough to fuel flight within the Earth’s atmosphere.

The team believes it has solved this problem by designing a thruster that creates plasma from air mid-flight by compressing air into high pressures and using a microwave to charge it. If scaled up, it can create enough thrust to match a commercial jet engine, the team claims.

“Our results demonstrated that such a jet engine based on microwave air plasma can be a potentially viable alternative to the conventional fossil fuel jet engine,” said the study’s author, Dr Jau Tang.

More work is needed to improve the prototype’s efficiency before it can be tried in a full-sized jet and getting enough electricity to the engine to create plasma could also present a significant challenge.

But if it can work on a large scale, it could usher in an era of guilt-free flying.

The research is published in the journal AIP Advances.

I wonder how the engineers intend to force air into the jet engine at sufficient pressure that it can be ionised and used to generate thrust. At the moment conventional jet engines solve the problem of obtaining enough air to mix with the fuel through using powerful turbines that suck the air in. If this engine uses something similar and its powered by conventional aircraft fuel, although its carbon footprint will be low it still won’t be zero. Or perhaps the turbines would use extremely powerful electric motors.

It seems to me that the basic concept is sound, as last year a group of American aerospace engineers showed that ionized air around a plane could be used to provide extra lift and make the vehicle travel further. They did this by stringing electrically charged wires above and below the wings of a miniature aircraft, which was then launched into the air. The model did actually fly further than it normally would using conventional propulsion.

Obviously these plasma drives are still a long way off from coming into service and need a lot of development, but they do show a great deal of potential. Hopefully they will prove practical, and will usher in an age of air transport, where the carbon emissions will be greatly reduced, if not zero.

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One Response to “Chinese Scientists Working on Zero-Carbon Plasma Jet Engines”

  1. trev Says:

    Inscrutable! No doubt many people out there will speculate that this is an example of technology being ‘back-engineered’ from downed UFOs. Whatever it is it’s a clever and interesting development, be good to see what this leads to. Plasma is weird stuff, am I right in thinking it’s both a Gas and a particle at the same time? If the Chinese are on to this I bet the Americans are too. Perhaps plasma-powered aircraft being tested in secret could account for some UFO sightings.

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