Plasma Burn
November 29, 2013

Plasma Burn

When I was young, I was taught that there were three forms of matter. These were solid, liquid, and gas. For examples, I was given water. When it is in its most known form, that of water, it is a liquid. When it is frozen and becomes ice, it is a solid. When it is boiled and becomes vapor, it is a gas. Simple. Well, since then, as most people know, there has been a fourth form of matter recognized by common science: plasma. Plasma is an ionized gas. Not quite a solid, not quite a liquid, and not quite truly a gas. It is unique, and thus became the fourth recognized form of matter. No longer could water simply be used to illustrate them all, at least not in a small town, grade school classroom.

One thing you can do with plasma is add it into the combination of air, fuel, and heat that powers most modern engines to make them more sustainable. Sure, it is more complex than just tossing some plasma in the gas tank, but when added to the chemical reaction within an engine the plasma is able to sustain the combustion in situations that would otherwise cancel it out, such as low pressure, high winds, or low fuel. There has been a great deal of research done to see how this amazing feature of our forth form of matter could be implemented into modern aircraft, but thus far there have not been any successful attempts to do so. Why? Because researchers are not quite sure exactly why — or more accurately, how — plasma is able to do this. When introduced to the combustion, near to where the starter flame ignites, a new chemical species is produced that improves the combustion, but no one is clear yet as to what this new species of reaction is or what they might react to further. Put quite simply by Igor Adamovich of Ohio State University, “It’s not well understood at all.” Adamovich is one of the many scientists and researchers studying this remarkable phenomenon. Currently they have studies reaction rates at air pressures similar to those found during a high-altitude flight, as well as at temperatures between 200 and 400 degrees Celsius (between 392 and 752 degrees Fahrenheit), which is below ignition temperature and where data is currently non-existent. This is why teams have presently been working with various forms of fuel to test just how plasma will react when introduced. Because of the nature of plasma, they have been using computer simulations to test their theories. Thus far, it has been found that for common fuels like hydrogen, methane, and ethylene, the reaction caused by plasma was very much in line with what they were expecting. With other fuels, like propane, the introduction of plasma into the reaction did not work as smoothly as they had anticipated.

If researchers are able to uncover how to precisely calculate and administer plasma into the combustion reaction, we will find ourselves looking forward to much more sustainable air traffic. Passenger planes could cruise for longer distances while conserving more fuel. Jets could fly higher, for longer, all the while flying at speeds that would normally suffocate their ignition. Once we understand this reaction, it will not be long before we are able to implement it. Once we implement it, we will be seeing a very high-flying future.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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