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Exploring the Potential of Electric Plasma Jet Engines for Sustainable Air Travel

Imagine a shiny modern airliner crisscrossing the globe powered exclusively by clean electricity and fresh air. That’s the grand vision of a new generation of jet thrusters making big noise in engineering labs around the world. But is this technology the solution to runaway climate change and fossil fuel dependency – or just a load of hot air?

Join us today as we take a metaphorical test flight with the electric plasma jet engine.


In our quest for sustainable transportation, electric plasma jet engines offer a glimmer of hope. While conventional jet engines rely on fossil fuels, these innovative engines harness the power of hot plasma to generate thrust. This article delves into the exciting realm of electric plasma jet engines, exploring their potential to revolutionize the aviation industry.

How Conventional Jet Engines Work

Before we get stuck into the nitty-gritty of electric plasma jet engines – they truly are just as exciting as the name implies – let’s look at how conventional jet engines actually work. Jet fuel, usually a kerosene-based petroleum mixture, gets mixed up with compressed air and ignited. The resulting gas heats rapidly, expands with explosive force, and is harnessed to power fans or blasted directly out of the back of the engine, demonstrating classic jet thrust.


The Fascinating World of Electric Plasma Jet Engines

Electric plasma jet engines, on the other hand, forego any smelly toxic hydrocarbons. Instead, they generate the crucial propulsive expansion of gas with the help of hot plasma. Plasma, another state of matter like solid, liquid, or gas, occurs under specific circumstances, such as in the heart of a star or the air surrounding highly charged phenomena like lightning bolts. By artificially superheating plasma, it is theoretically possible to generate enough thrust to fly an aircraft.

This groundbreaking concept has been experimentally explored by labs in the US and Berlin, but the most promising recent breakthrough happened in Wuhan, China. Professor Jau Tang, a polymath who has worked across various fields from nanotechnology to artificial photosynthesis, developed a device at the Institute of Technological Sciences at Wuhan University. This device ionizes compressed air by running it past electrodes and then forces it along a specially-designed quartz tube.


The Breakthrough in Wuhan, China

In a moment of inspiration, Professor Tang wondered if the technology he was using for synthetic diamond production could be applied to generate thrust. His team developed a device that utilized microwaves and compressed air to create a low-temperature plasma. The device consisted of a quartz tube intersecting with a waveguide that carried magnotron-generated microwaves. As the microwaves met the low-temperature plasma at the narrowest point, they caused charged particles to oscillate, releasing energy and producing a dazzling heat of 1000 degrees Celsius. This heat, in turn, created the all-important thrust. While still in the early stages of development, Tang is optimistic that his device could potentially power drones in a couple of years, with the hope of eventually progressing to manned aircraft.


Challenges and Limitations

Despite the promising advancements in electric plasma jet engine technology, there are significant challenges and limitations that need to be addressed. One major hurdle is the extreme temperature generated by the engines, reaching 1000 degrees Celsius. This temperature is too high for current aviation-grade engine housing materials to endure without suffering from plasma erosion, which can be detrimental to engine performance and safety.

Another challenge lies in scaling up the technology. While the current experiments have shown promising results on a small scale, scaling up the airflows by a factor of about 15,000, as required for commercial jet airliners, presents significant engineering obstacles. What works in a laboratory setting may not necessarily translate seamlessly to the grand dimensions of a fully operational aircraft.

Furthermore, the issue of how to provide electrical power to the device during flight remains unsolved. Conventional jet fuel carries significantly more energy than batteries at the same weight, making it difficult to match the energy requirements of plasma jet engines. The power needed to generate thrust equivalent to that of a commercial airliner would be immense, and current battery technology falls far short of meeting this demand.


The Quest for Power: Batteries and Nuclear Reactors

Researchers in the electric plasma jet field are eagerly awaiting advancements in battery technology or the possibility of compact fusion nuclear reactors to address the power challenge. Although the idea of using small, conventional nuclear fission reactors has been suggested, concerns about shielding passengers from radiation and the astronomical costs associated with crashes make this option highly improbable. Additionally, even if enough power could be harnessed for the engines, the current technology for cabling to carry that amount of energy would be excessively heavy.


Skepticism and Criticisms

While there is undeniable excitement surrounding electric plasma jet engines, skepticism exists among experts in the field. Professor Steven Barret, an aerospace engineering professor at MIT, expressed his doubts on Twitter, stating that the research conducted by the Wuhan team was flawed in terms of physics and measurements. He argued that simply adding heat, whether through microwaves or other means, is insufficient without compressing the air first, as in conventional jet engines. Barret's skepticism emphasizes the need for a comprehensive understanding of the underlying principles and engineering challenges involved.


Electric Plasma Engines in Space

Despite the challenges faced on Earth, electric plasma engines have found successful applications in space exploration. NASA has been utilizing electric plasma engines, specifically those energizing xenon plasma, for interplanetary missions. In the vacuum of space, without the constraints of atmospheric pressure, these engines can reach high speeds through constant acceleration over extended periods. Some futurists have even proposed the concept of hybrid planes that use plasma jets for cruising in the high atmosphere, after conventional fossil fuels perform the heavy lifting during takeoff.


The Future of Electric Plasma Jet Engines

While electric plasma jet engines hold promise for greener aviation, it will take considerable time and technological advancements before they become a practical reality for commercial aircraft. The challenges of temperature management, power supply, and scalability need to be overcome through innovative engineering and collaboration between various disciplines.

As research continues, it is possible that electric plasma jet engines may find initial applications in smaller aircraft, such as drones or regional jets, where the energy requirements are more manageable. This would provide an opportunity to refine the technology and gather valuable data to support further development.

Ultimately, the future of aviation lies in a multifaceted approach that combines advancements in electric plasma jet engines, battery technology, sustainable fuels, and other innovations. While electric plasma jet engines may not be the sole solution to the challenges facing the aviation industry, they represent a significant step towards cleaner and more sustainable air travel.



The development of electric plasma jet engines represents an exciting leap towards cleaner aviation. By harnessing the power of hot plasma, these engines offer the potential to reduce or eliminate the dependence on fossil fuels, ultimately mitigating the environmental impact of air travel. While significant challenges and limitations remain, researchers and engineers around the world are dedicated to pushing the boundaries of this technology. With continued innovation and collaboration, electric plasma jet engines could one day help propel us into a future of sustainable and environmentally friendly aviation.




Q: Are electric plasma jet engines completely emission-free? 

While electric plasma jet engines eliminate the direct emissions associated with burning fossil fuels, they still require a power source. The emissions generated during the production of electricity to power these engines depend on the source of the electricity, which could be renewable or non-renewable.


Q: How long will it take for electric plasma jet engines to be used in commercial aviation? 

The widespread use of electric plasma jet engines in commercial aviation is still years or even decades away. Significant technological advancements and engineering solutions are needed to overcome the current challenges and limitations.


Q: Are there any safety concerns associated with electric plasma jet engines? 

Safety is a crucial aspect that needs to be carefully addressed in the development of electric plasma jet engines. The extreme temperatures and potential plasma erosion pose challenges for engine housing materials. Additionally, ensuring a reliable power supply during flight is essential for the safe operation of these engines.


Q: Can electric plasma jet engines be retrofitted onto existing aircraft? 

Retrofitting existing aircraft with electric plasma jet engines would require significant modifications and considerations due to the differences in engine design and power requirements. It is more likely that electric plasma jet engines will be integrated into new aircraft designs in the future.

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