Except for the TKS-powered anti-ice technology installed on some small aircraft, the ultimate system to keep wings and tail components free of ice is most certainly the heated leading edges used aboard turbine-powered aircraft. The downside of these near-perfect ice-shedding machines is that they drain valuable bleed air energy from the engine itself, often when the aircraft needs them most.
Recently researchers from Queen’s University in Belfast said they’ve developed a new ice-prevention system, one that uses an ultra-light weight heater created from webs of carbon nanotubes (CNT). Professor Brian Falzon, from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who led the research team said in a news release, “We started by creating a CNT web, where individual CNTs … stacking 10-40 layers of the webs, at different orientations, to achieve the desired heating characteristics.” He added that, “The webs could be attached on the inner surface of a wing leading edge, nacelle lip skin, or could also be incorporated within a composite material.”
Nearly as important as the power drain of modern leading edge heating systems is the weight of the plumbing needed to operate them. Falzon said, “Each layer of CNT web can be as thin as 1/2000 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. When we carried out testing, we discovered that the newly developed CNT heaters achieved rapid heating which shows they could quickly de-ice aircraft and provide effective ice protection in flight.”
While nanotube heaters will demand more research before they can be brought to market, Dr Xudan Yao, a PhD student from China, who worked on the project under the supervision of Professor Falzon and Professor Stephen Hawkins said, “Compared with state-of-the-art heating systems currently used on aircraft, the CNT heater that we have created at Queen’s is lighter, provides rapid and more uniform heating and is more energy efficient.”