A team of researchers from the Queen’s University Belfast in the UK has developed a new system to prevent ice from accumulating on aircraft.

When an aircraft flies through cloud in cold weather, layers of ice can build up on the wings, propellers or jet intakes. It can result in increased drag and reduced lift to potentially lose control of the aircraft.

Accumulation of ice over wing surfaces had previously caused various fatal accidents.

The newly developed system is an ultra-lightweight heater that features ‘webs’ made from carbon nanotubes (CNT), which can be used for de-icing.

“The weight of a web large enough to cover a football field would be less than 30 sheets of A4 photocopy paper.”

School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering professor Brian Falzon led the university’s team in the research that led to the creation of the system, which will be further developed by the team over the next few years.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has provided funding for the project, which is part of a larger research programme that seeks to develop innovative aircraft structures.

Falzon said: “We started by creating a ‘CNT web’, where individual CNTs are aligned in the draw direction, and horizontally stacking 10-40 layers of the webs, at different orientations, to achieve the desired heating characteristics.

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“Each layer of CNT web can be as thin as 1/2,000 the thickness of a human hair and the weight of a web large enough to cover a football field would be less than 30 sheets of A4 photocopy paper.

“These CNT webs were cured within a thin glass fibre laminate to provide structural support, and connected to a power supply. When we carried out testing, we discovered that the newly developed CNT heaters achieved rapid heating, which shows that the CNT heaters could quickly de-ice aircraft and provide effective ice protection in-flight.”

Most of the passenger jets currently use the conventional anti-icing system, which involves hot air that is ‘bled’ from the engines and piped to the inner surface of the wing.

The hot air is then moved to the outer surface by thermal conduction to prevent the ice from accumulating.