Researchers at Tokyo Institute of Technology have developed a technique that could possibly be used with lightweight aircraft that employs a laser to power paper airplanes.

The mechanism uses a laser to turn water into steam to power the engine. The research team is led by professor Takashi Yabe of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Science.

They used a process called “laser ablation,” which occurs when a laser beam hits an object and atoms are ejected from its surface. This creates a certain momentum that can propel the object forward.

The team conducted the experiment using two small airplanes that were several centimeters long and weighed 0.1 and 0.2 grams. They attached ablation targets, made of aluminum and coated with water, to the planes. When the laser beam hit the targets, the steam created propelled the planes at speeds of up to 1.4 meters per second.

If they find a way to keep the water on the target and continually supply laser pulses, the technique could be used to develop an engine, the researcher said.

“We will develop an aircraft to fly at supersonic speeds by continually using water in the air and laser pulses. If the plane can fly in the stratosphere where normal jet engines cannot be used due to the thin atmosphere, it will be able to fly as fast as Mach 5,” Yabe figured.

A similar method — using a laser to hit an object and heat the air near it — was developed 30 years ago in the United States when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration succeeded in propelling 100-gram objects into the air.

Yabe’s team, however, said their method of using water on the surface of metal is far more effective and generates a greater propelling force.

The team is currently developing an engine for a small aircraft that can be targeted by a laser on the ground. The plane will be used to monitor the atmosphere. If a powerful miniature laser can be developed, it could be loaded onto the plane.

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