Solar Powered Aircraft to Fly Around the World

by Richard Zaher / Dec 22, 2014

Solar Impulse 2

Picture Source

As the Solar Impulse 2 made its inaugural flight, creators Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg must have felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Their incredible aircraft is able to fly solely on solar power, soaring through the air using nothing but the sun’s energy, and the pair are well on their way to achieving their dream in 2015 – to see their solar-powered aircraft fly around the world with no additional fuel.

In order to fully appreciate the journey already taken to get to this point it is necessary to understand a little more about the men behind the plane. Bertrand Piccard is a doctor and a psychiatrist, as well as an astronaut. His ambition to travel round the world is not a new development; you may remember him as the first man to fly around the globe in a hot air balloon. He is the Chairman of Solar Impulse.

André Borschberg has studied Management Science at Sloan School (MIT) and spent time is an engineer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL). The fighter pilot can fly both airplanes and helicopters professionally and is the co-founder and CEO of Solar Impulse. Together, the pair have endeavored to do what no man has done before, and circle the globe in a solar-powered aircraft.

Solar Impulse 2

The Solar Impulse 2 is covered with 17,000 solar cells to absorb energy from the sun. Picture Source.

Building a plane capable of flying so far purely via solar power has been no mean feat. Of course, this is not the first aircraft to travel by such means, yet it is the first to declare such a bold ambition. Storing up sufficient solar energy to go around the world means flying day and night for up to a month, which essentially means a successful flight opens the possibility of a plane that can theoretically fly forever, never having to stop to top up its fuel.

Creating the plane was no overnight task. Twelve long years of thought went into the project from concept to design and structure. Fifty engineers and technicians have lent their expertise to the aircraft alongside 80 technological partners. Along the design process over 100 suppliers and advisers have weighed in, all to help create first the prototype (Solar Impulse 1) and, ultimately, the final product which we see today.

What has been created is truly an impressive specimen. The wingspan stretches 236ft and is covered in 17,000 solar cells to absorb energy from the sun. Weighing in at 2,300kg, the plane has approximately the same mass as a regular car. Energy captured on the solar panels is siphoned into lithium polymer batteries which are pre-mounted into four engine nacelles. This takes up around 25% of the aircraft’s total weight and powers the entire thing. These engines have broken efficiency records boasting a rate of 94%, and help the aircraft to reach speeds ranging from 36 km/h up to 140 km/h.

As you would expect with two passionate and knowledgeable minds behind the project, every aspect has been accounted for, leading to a slimline aircraft packing only essential weight. The aforementioned 2,300kg total weight is around 90% lighter than the finest gliders around. Despite this, the minimalist structure is surprisingly vigorous; honeycomb and carbon fiber materials create a balance of rigidity with the lightweight required for aerodynamic travel.

This all proved fruitful when the plane underwent its first successful flight. Pilot Markus Scherdel took her for the test spin and, aside from some unexpected vibrations early on in the flight, the overall results were considered a success.

Solar Impulse 2

The Solar Impulse 2 flying at sunset. Picture Source.

“It’s a great day for all the team of Solar Impulse”, said Piccardfollowing the successful test flight. “An aeroplane like this is absolutely unique. And for the first time in history, we have an aeroplane that is flying with no fuel day and night, showing the incredible potential of the clean technologies – all these technologies that the world can also use in order to reduce the dependency on fossil fuel and to be cleaner and solve a lot of problems of pollution.”

The idea of “flying with no fuel day and night” really is an exciting prospect. Obviously, this adds to the convenience of private and commercial aircraft but should the technology be progressed it would open the door to a new realm of possibilities. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) also referred to as ‘drones’ could benefit greatly from the duo advantage of requiring no human pilot and no fuel, reducing the cost significantly and allowing for more UAVs to operate simultaneously. On a more fundamental level, the idea of renewable energy seamlessly replacing finite fossil fuels is a hugely progressive step for the field of aviation as a whole and there is little doubt that, should the Solar Impulse 2 prove a lasting success, solar technology will become a very serious consideration for a wide array of aircraft carriers.

This is most certainly a consideration that Piccard and Borschberg have taken into account when designing the revered aircraft.

“To be really honest, I am very afraid of living in a world that burns one million tons of oil every hour without even counting gas and coal; a world that is destroying the planet and the environment” said Piccard.

“I am much less afraid to fly in a solar-powered airplane because solar power is one of the solutions for the future.”

For now, though, the pair remain focused on their immediate aim – seeing the Solar Impulse 2 fly around the world in 2015. They have decided to make stops in each continent and share the duties of the record-breaking task between several flyers.

“Because it’s a single pilot and the plane flies slowly, we’re going to land on every continent and switch the pilot,” said Piccard.

“One of us will make the Pacific, one will make the Atlantic; one will cross China the other one will cross America and so on.”

He ends on a defiant note with a view to the long-term.

“This is really the message we want to spread. With clean technology, with renewable energy, we can achieve incredible things without any fuel at all.”

About Richard Zaher

Richard Zaher Richard Zaher is the founder and CEO of Paramount Business Jets. He is a pilot and the President of Air Charter Association of North America (ACANA). Richard is a graduate of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) with a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Studies. A seasoned international jet charter expert, entrepreneur, humanitarian, and the recipient of the Embry Riddle Eagle Excellence Award at the 2012 National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) convention. He is also an active member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) as well as several safety and air charter organizations.

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