Skip to content
Subscriber Only

MIT Researchers Fire Up the Ionic Thrusters

MIT Researchers Fire Up the Ionic Thrusters
Photograph by Stocktrek via Getty Images

Researchers at MIT have built an ionic thruster—a device that can lift something into the air by charging the air molecules around it. Amazing, right? Though not in the way you might think. As sci-fi as it sounds, the basic technology to build ionic thrusters has been around since the 1960s, and Star Trek-inspired hobbyists have been making small “ionocrafts” for decades. NASA powers some of its unmanned deep-space voyagers using ion thrusters. These are not, however, the sort of thing that will launch Captain Kirk into orbit. NASA’s thrusters were built to work in the gravity- and friction-free environment of space. But even there, they’re more breeze than blast.

Earthbound ion thrusters have thus far been small and weak—able to levitate or propel ionocrafts built from balsa wood, aluminum foil, and wire but nothing heavy. The idea that an ionic propulsion device might power an airplane has long been dismissed as a fantasy—the amount of energy required, it was thought, would make it impractical.