Plasma Engines

How much do you know about engines? If you’re like most people, probably not much beyond the fact that they need fuel to function.

With the development of plasma engines, though, even that fact is not a certainty, and engines as you know them may soon perform a lot differently.


Out of Thin Air

Your run of the mill jet engine ignites fuel and compressed air to create thrust as this ignition is propelled out the back of the engine. This system has worked fine for decades of air travel, but isn’t it time to move on to something more advanced? German researchers certainly think so. 

Plasma engines don’t rely on an outside fuel source, like gasoline. Instead, they use power to create electromagnetic fields within the engine. By compressing gasses present in air, they excite them into a plasma. This is the same sort of reaction that occurs in fusion reactors. 

For the most part, research into plasma engines has to do with propelling aircraft through space, but that body of research isn’t the end of plasma engines’ usefulness. 

A team at the Technical University of Berlin wants to expand the current knowledge of plasma engines and put them in jets, rather than just spacecraft. Though plasma engines in general aren’t well-known, and are largely still in research phases, they are usually only considered viable in very high altitudes. 

However, this team has developed a plasma jet engine that can also function at ground level, meaning that it could be used in takeoff and landing, as well as during high altitude flights. Because they wouldn’t require refueling and have greater performance capabilities, plasma jet engines would allow for planes to travel greater distances in less time. 

A Novel Idea

Arthur C. Clarke’s “A Space Odyssey” featured spaceships that navigated the universe with plasma engines, using nuclear reactors to propel them. Whether he was drawing on Clarke’s inspiration or his own experiences in space, astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz first developed a similar engine in 1983. 

Diaz’s engine, known as VASIMR, turned a fuel source like hydrogen or helium into plasma by stripping their electrons. Magnetic fields could then be used to direct the rocket’s thrust in whatever direction necessary. What’s more, because the plasma particles are held together by magnetism rather than a canister, there is no limit to how hot that can be, and therefore this method allows spaceships to move much faster with less fuel. 

Today, theories believe that this technology could be used to create something called hyper drive, that would allow for the kind of super fast space travel science fiction flicks have promised is possible.

Mirroring a decades-old Space Race, Russia is also interested in developing these sorts of high powered plasma engines for their spacecraft. They have not reached quite the same level as Americans, but with a thorough understanding of the technology and the tools to apply it, it’s only a matter of time. Most movies that feature far advanced space travel rely upon plasma engines, and it appears that their widespread use isn’t far off. Whether it’s in a spaceship or the plane you’ll be riding in 50 years, this likely isn’t the last you’ve heard of plasma engines.