The plasma device produces propulsion by compressing air and ionizing it with microwaves, the researchers said. Credit: Handout.

Mankind has moved a step closer to carbon emissions-free air travel, as Chinese scientists have now developed a prototype jet engine that uses air plasma to generate propulsion, Caixin Global reported.

The prototype device, built by a team of scientists from the Institute of Technological Sciences at Wuhan University, uses air and electricity to generate propulsion under laboratory conditions that can be comparable to a traditional commercial aircraft engine, they said in a paper.

The device produces propulsion by compressing air and ionizing it with microwaves, the researchers wrote. They said they used the technology to lift a 1 kilogram steel ball over a quartz tube with a diameter of 24 millimeters, Caixin Global reported.

“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 said in the paper.

Plasma propulsion is common on modern spacecraft but engineers have long struggled to adapt the technology to work in Earth’s atmosphere, The Daily Mail reported.  

The Chinese team say their prototype has overcome this barrier and is able to generate as much thrust as a commercial jet engine without burning fossil fuels. 

Researchers aim to build a large array of these thrusters with high-power microwave sources to scale up the prototype design to a full-sized jet, the Daily Mail reported.

“Our results demonstrated that such a jet engine based on microwave air plasma can be a potentially viable alternative to the conventional fossil fuel jet engine,” said professor Jau Tang at Wuhan University, China.

‘The motivation for our work is to help solve the global warming problems owing to humans’ use of fossil fuel combustion engines to power machinery, such as cars and airplanes.

‘There is no need for fossil fuel with our design, and therefore there is no carbon emission to cause greenhouse effects and global warming.”

Plasma – the lesser-known fourth state of matter, after solid, liquid and gas – is produced when the atoms in a gas become ionized, The Daily Mail reported.

Astrophysicists believe plasma is the most abundant form of matter in the universe and was the first of the four states of matter to be created after the Big Bang.

It exists naturally in stars, Earth’s lighting and the sun’s surface and interior, but it can also be generated in the lab using microwaves, lasers, fire flame, an electric arc and other methods, The Daily Mail reported. 

Plasma naturally arises due to the ionization of molecules at high temperatures or in high electric fields.

Generated plasma has applications in metal processing, crystal growth, medical treatment, food processing, energy and environmental industries.

Artificial plasmas have been created for plasma display panels in TV screens, neon signs and fluorescent lamps, while plasma jet thrusters have also been used in aerospace applications for years, The Daily Mail reported. 

The scientists report that the prototype could be adapted by the commercial aviation industry to replace the current line of carbon-emitting airliners and are working on improving the efficiency of the device to make this happen.

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