Wuhan University Unveils Plasma Jet Prototype That Could Eventually Replace Jet Fuel

China could now be laying the groundwork for the development of plasma jets, giving the world a peek into the future of sustainable air travel.

In a paper published last week, researchers at the Institute of Technological Sciences at Wuhan University — one of the country’s most prestigious universities with a “Double First Class” status — announced that they had developed a prototype of a plasma jet device, using electricity to run its engine.

Plasma is one of the four fundamental states of matter which, simply put, is ionized gas. It is produced by heating gas until all electrons possess the energy to escape the grip of positively-charged nuclei.

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As a result, plasma is composed of free electrons and positively charged ions (also known as cations). And because it is made of charged particles, it conducts electricity and reacts to electromagnetic fields.

A plasma globe is a common object to “visualize” plasma. It is a clear glass ball filled with noble gases with a high-voltage electrode at its center. Plasma filaments extend from the electrode to the glass when electricity is supplied, creating light.

Thus, a plasma engine uses electricity to generate plasma and ejects the ions to create thrust. The prototype the researchers had developed is a device capable of lifting a 117-gram (4.13-ounce) steel ball over a 24-millimeter (1-inch) diameter quartz tube.

The hollow steel ball has a small hole for the insertion of much smaller steel beads, which function to keep it stationary. If the plasma jet is strong enough, it can cause the steel ball to vibrate.

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The researchers published a video showing the success of the prototype. Theoretically, this suggests that it could be scaled up to power an aircraft that no longer relies on fuel.

“With materials resistant to high temperature and pressure, it is possible to construct a high-performance microwave air plasma jet thruster in the future to avoid carbon emissions and global warming that arise due to fossil fuel combustion,” the researchers noted.

“How to deal with the impact of high temperature on equipment and how to evaluate the driving force are challenges that require further research.”

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Image via  U.S. Navy. In space, a bow shock occurs when the magnetosphere of an astrophysical object interacts with the nearby flowing ambient plasma such as solar winds.

Read the full paper on AIP Advances.

Feature Image Screenshots via Dan Ye, Jun Li and Jau Tang / AIP Advances

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