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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Plasma Jet Engines: Is Flying At 20Km Per Second Possible?

Those who watched The Space Between Us would surely have a fresh memory of the plane that Gary Oldman’s character flew from the ground into space. The plane probably used plasma jet engines and they are being developed on Earth right now. Still, to make that plane a reality will take quite some time.

A team of researchers from the Technical University of Berlin spoke to New Scientist about their plasma jet fuel engine that can propel a plane into the air, to the edge of space, using nothing but electricity and air. Well, “nothing but” is a bit too mildly put, as the electricity that the engines would use will have to come from somewhere, like a battery.

The leader of the team told New Scientist’s Sandrine Ceurstemont that “We are the first to produce fast and powerful plasma jets at ground level. These jets of plasma can reach speeds of up to 20 kilometres a second.” Berkant Göksel, from Technical University of Berlin, added that “We want to develop a system that can operate above an altitude of 30 kilometres where standard jet engines cannot go.”

This is certainly an ambitious goal, and the first step seems promising. Plasma jet engines use electricity to generate electromagnetic fields, which then compress a gas into plasma—the fuel in the heart of a star. This makes them extremely powerful, but also confined to labs because so far, they have all been designed to work in the vacuum of space or in very low pressures near the edge of the atmosphere. Related: Oil Prices Spike On Strong Crude Inventory Draw

Göksel’s team developed an engine that can work in the air, which was a major accomplishment, but the practical application of the invention is still years away. The engine that the team developed is actually an assembly of mini thrusters of 8 cm in length. An average airliner would need 10,000 of them to fly, and installing so many thrusters would be a challenge. Yet at most, only 1,000 of the mini thrusters would be required for smaller planes, which is why the team is targeting these for further tests.

The more serious problem is the supply of electricity. Whatever the size of the plane that will go to the edge of space thanks to the plasma jet thrusters, it will need to carry with it a battery, or as one Israeli researcher said, “a small electrical power plant.” Related: OPEC Monitoring Committee Proposes Nine-Month Extension

Today’s batteries are not up to this task. For example, a Tesla Model S battery weighs about half a ton and has a capacity of 85 kWh. The battery provides the energy for the 380-horse power electric engine. The engine of a Boeing 747-400, on the other hand, has a power that equals more than 95,000 horse power. In other words, for the plasma jet technology to become commercially viable, another invention is needed: a lightweight, super energy-dense battery that can be mounted on the aircraft.

For Göksel, there are alternatives, such as solar panels—again a challenging option—or wireless transfer of energy to the plane’s engine. The researcher, however, is pinning most of his hopes on advancements in compact fusion reactors. This could solve the battery problem by going around it. However, even large-scale fusion reactors are not yet a viable alternative to traditional fission reactors, let alone compact ones. So while the hype is well deserved, a replication of Gary Oldman’s plane journey into space is still years away.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • Jeff Pluim on June 04 2017 said:
    All rockets, jets and air and marine propellers will soon be obsolete because of new technology called a Centrifugal Propeller. It is a completely closed in unit that can operate in any medium. It will continually accelerate in space. If you continually accelerate, you have gravity in your space craft. Then when you get halfway to your destination, you disengage the Centrifugal Propeller and simply use some rocket thrusters to turn your spacecraft around and then re-engage the Centrifugal Propeller to decelerate, thus giving you gravity again. It has no speed limit.
  • Lou on June 23 2017 said:
    Couldn't the plasma engine be started with a battery or capacitor and then use some of the energy to produce electricity to keep it running?
    Every vehicle, from skateboards to rockets, needs a 'lightweight, super energy-dense battery'.
  • Richard Wicks on July 05 2017 said:
    No, that's about 72,000 km/h. Currently the fastest spacecraft is Helios at 252,792 km/h and that used a gravity assist - of a planet, and it's travelling in a near vacuum.

    This is called a Feynman problem by the way.

    Energy density is simply not available unless you go nuclear and we all know what a bad idea the Orion Drive is.
  • nobody on July 11 2017 said:
    What about the aluminium & gallium "battery"?
    The aluminium & gallium splits water into O2 and H2 which recombine in a fuel cell to make electricity.
    A fairly efficient and energetic process.
    The company says the system is on-par with a normal internal combustion engine, same range etc.
    Not sure how much useful energy a gram of kerosene produces compared to a gram of aluminium & gallium reacting in water.....
  • Kevin McKinney on July 14 2017 said:
    Works in the vacuum of space? Only if you carry something to generate gas with! Or figure a way to collect gaseous molecules that do exist in the vacuum of space to compress! Or did I miss something here?
  • Timothy Adams on July 22 2017 said:
    Tesla model: use a ground based power system to wirelessly transmit the energy to the engines til the plane reaches orbital altitude. Overcoming the gravity well of earth by placing the energy generation on the ground would allow the vehicle to reach space without massive batteries.

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