Will Future Planes Fly On Wings Of Plasma?

Fourth matter and the drag-cutting edge of aerodynamics

Glowing Plasma Actuators

Glowing Plasma Actuators

Like this, only instead of an array, on a wing and manipulating airflow.Xunger, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Air is a drag. The very fluid that makes flight possible also pulls against airplanes, creating friction and resistance as they fly through the sky. With a buzz and a light blue electric glow, researchers are experimenting with plasma as a tool to manipulate air around airplane wings, reducing drag and saving on cost. Plus, the airplane wings would glow electric blue, which honestly feel like reason enough

As Steve Ashley reports for PBS Nova Next:

On airplane wings, for example, tiny plasma actuators could help planes fly more safely, more efficiently, and with greater stability and control. They can speed, slow or divert air flows in ways that can cut drag, fuel use, and CO2 emissions by as much as 25 percent, researchers estimate. Some experts even think that these devices might someday replace conventional flight control surfaces such as flaps and ailerons. Imagine witnessing the ghoulish purple glow of the lab demo from the window seat of your transcontinental flight. Future planes might create their own aurora borealis. More immediately, aerodynamicists are looking to place the same technology on the huge, vulnerable, and costly blades of wind turbines to improve their efficiency, extend their lifetimes, and even help them more effectively cope with gusting winds.

Here's what that looks like on the side of a wing, and another demonstration on top of a wing.

The science of plasma for aerodynamics isn't particularly new; the Soviet Union had a program studying it, and there's been decades of international research on it since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

What's changed is both the kinds of aircraft that might be able use it, and the power available. Plasma as a tool for directing airflow is particularly appealing on tiny electric-powered aircraft, like drones, where space is at a premium.

And for larger craft, because plasma draws on electrical power, improvements in batteries and electrical power for airplanes means adding plasma actuators to wings could make sense, especially if they also lower fuel costs.

Read the full story at PBS.