Can Electricity Generate Thrust?

Electricity, the lifeblood of our modern civilization, powers everything from our homes to our vehicles.

But can it generate thrust?

The answer is a resounding yes.

This article explores how electricity can create thrust, its potential for propulsion in space, and the various elements that can generate thrust.

We’ll also delve into the power of electric propulsion and share insights from online discussions on the topic.


Can You Create Thrust with an Electric Motor?

Electric motors are known for their ability to convert electrical energy into mechanical energy.

This can indeed generate thrust.

This is particularly evident in electric vehicles.

The motor’s rotational force (torque) propels the vehicle forward.

However, the concept of creating thrust extends beyond terrestrial applications and into the realm of space exploration.

Electric motors in drones, for instance, generate thrust to lift the drone off the ground and keep it airborne.

The motor spins the propellers.

As the propellers push air down, the drone is thrust upward due to Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Can Electricity Be Used for Propulsion in Space?

Electricity plays a crucial role in space propulsion.

This is particularly through a technology known as electric propulsion.

Electric propulsion systems work by accelerating ions (charged atoms or molecules) using electricity.

This creates a force that propels spacecraft forward.

This method is highly efficient, requiring far less propellant than conventional chemical rockets.

NASA has been using electric propulsion for decades.

The NSTAR ion thruster on the Dawn spacecraft is a notable example.

The Psyche mission, aiming to explore a metal-rich asteroid, also plans to use electric propulsion.

Specifically, Hall thrusters.

Electric propulsion is not just a concept; it’s a reality that’s been successfully implemented in numerous space missions.

The European Space Agency’s SMART-1 lunar mission, for example, used electric propulsion to reach the Moon.

What Can Create Thrust?

Thrust can be generated by various means, depending on the context.

In the realm of aviation and space travel, it’s typically created by the expulsion of mass.

This is in the form of jet exhaust or rocket propellant in the opposite direction of desired travel.

This principle is encapsulated in Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Electric propulsion systems, such as ion thrusters and Hall thrusters, create thrust by accelerating ions using electric fields.

These ions are then expelled from the thruster.

This creates a reaction force that propels the spacecraft forward.

But it’s not just in space where electricity can create thrust.

On Earth, electric boats use propellers driven by electric motors to generate thrust in water.

Similarly, electric fans generate thrust by pushing air, and electric cars generate thrust by turning their wheels.

How Powerful is Electric Propulsion?

Electric propulsion systems are highly efficient.

They are capable of achieving greater speeds over time compared to their chemical counterparts.

However, they generate relatively low thrust.

This makes them unsuitable for overcoming Earth’s gravity.

As such, they’re primarily used once a spacecraft is already in space.

Despite their low thrust, the efficiency of electric propulsion systems makes them ideal for long-duration space missions.

For instance, the Dawn spacecraft, using its NSTAR ion thruster, was able to travel to and study two different objects in the asteroid belt.

The power of electric propulsion is not just about the thrust it can generate but also the distance it can cover.

Electric propulsion systems can operate for a long time.

This allows spacecraft to travel vast distances.

The trade-off is that these journeys take longer compared to those powered by chemical propulsion.

Insights from Online Discussions

Online discussions reveal a wealth of information and perspectives on the topic of electricity generating thrust.

For instance, a discussion on Space Stack Exchange highlights the potential of electric propulsion but also underscores the challenges, such as the need for a large power source and the low thrust produced.

A Quora thread echoes these points.

Contributors note the efficiency and longevity of electric propulsion systems in space.

However, they also point out that these systems are not yet capable of launching spacecraft from Earth due to their low thrust.

An article on Futurism discusses the work of a professor at Wuhan University.

He is developing a thruster prototype that turns electricity directly into thrust.

The device uses microwaves to energize compressed air into a plasma state.

This is then expelled like a jet.

While the technology is still in its early stages, it represents a promising step towards electric propulsion.

This could potentially replace fossil fuels.

Finally, a post on the Psyche Mission website provides a detailed explanation of how electric thrusters work on spacecraft.

It emphasizes the efficiency of these systems and their suitability for long-duration space missions.


Electricity’s potential to generate thrust is a game-changer, particularly for space exploration.

While the technology still faces challenges, such as power requirements and low thrust, advancements are continually being made.

As we continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible, the dream of efficient, electrically powered space travel comes ever closer to reality.

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