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Published on February 20th, 2013 | by James Ayre

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Solar-Powered Planes In Russia — Solar Being Considered As Replacement For Jet Fuel

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February 20th, 2013 by
 
Solar energy may be replacing fossil fuels as the power source of the Russian civilian aircraft industry not too far into the future, based on where some of the country’s funding is going.

What happens to the aviation industries of the world as fuel prices continue to rise? What are the alternatives? Russia’s Ministry of Industry and Trade (Minpromtorg) seeks to answer these questions by ordering several new studies into possible fuel alternatives for its civilian aircraft industry. Among the most prominent of those alternatives is solar energy. A considerable amount of money has been allocated for this research, RUB628 million ($21 million).

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In a recent statement from the Minpromtorg, it was stated that new research on this subject is a necessity as Russia’s domestic airline industry expands and increases its fuel requirements. The ministry mentions that reducing fossil fuel use will have other benefits in addition to reducing costs, including helping to cut down on emissions.

Minpromtorg says it intends to make RUB628 million available for the studies. The ministry is expected to select successful companies, via a tender process, to conduct the research by this March. The results are then scheduled to be presented in 2015. If successful, they will then be shared with Russia’s aviation companies. This is the second project dealing with the use of solar energy in aircraft, undertaken by the Russian government. The first was initiated by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, and investigated the use of solar energy in light aircraft. However due to unsatisfactory results, the project was stopped in 2010.


The problem of what happens to the aviation industry when fossil fuels start becoming prohibitively expensive for civilian flight is one that needs to be addressed. Without alternatives fuel sources, will flying simply become something that is only for the rich and the military again?

Electric aircraft have been around for quite some time already, with the first flight of an electric aircraft being back in 1957 (and a disputed claim of a flight in 1909) — the primary choices being between those powered by batteries, solar cells (such as the Solar Impulse), or power beaming. But, so far, none of the technologies available could really support the same functions that fossil fuel–powered aircraft currently support. New research and technology will be a necessity if the large scale civilian use of airplanes is going to continue into the foreseeable future, as the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade seems to know.

Source: PV Magazine 
Image Credits: Airport via Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



  • Ronald Brakels

    For use in space, solar panels have now gotten down to about a kilogram per kilowatt. At that weight it seems worth while to run a plane’s electrical systems off solar power when the sun’s shining to save fuel. It may not be a huge saving, but every little bit helps.

    Hybrid electric small planes that receive some of their power from solar are also an option. Hybrid electric might seem an odd choice in such a weight critical application, but the added safety of having an electric engine powering the propellor may make it worthwhile. If the internal combustion generator fails, the plane can still land on battery power.

  • shecky vegas

    Minpromtorg?

  • http://twitter.com/TwiningInSight Robert M. Ryan

    Great, but… I’m a huge fan of renewable technologies, I’m a pilot and aircraft owner, I’m directing my business toward deeper involvement with energy efficiency, generation and harvesting, transmission, distribution, and utilization.

    But solar power will never directly power heavier than air commercial aircraft. Physics prevails. The power density of insolation is simply insufficient by orders of magnitude. Batteries will also, barring a breakthrough of unprecedented magnitude, not power commercial aircraft.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Robert, “never” is a dangerous word to use when making predictions.

      There’s apparently no physical reason why we can’t learn to make batteries that store as much energy per pound as does liquid fuel. The theoretical energy density of lithium air batteries is about the same as gasoline.

      We’re also looking at being able to reach the 50% efficiency point for solar cells. A plane design which presented a lot of horizontal surface (delta wing, for example) might make it possible for a commercial electric plane to harvest power and extend its range beyond battery range.

      I’m not saying that we will get there, but I’m not willing to bet we won’t either….

    • shecky vegas

      Robert – With current tech, sure. But who knows what lies ahead?
      And consider that jets get their lift from the thrust of their turbine engines. If you can generate the same amount of torque, what difference would the fuel source make?

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      i realize that you wrote “commercial aircraft,” but you are aware of the Solar Impulse, right: http://cleantechnica.com/tag/solar-impulse/

      that’s with today’s technology. technology in 30-50 years is going to be much better. “never say never.”

      i know that Boeing & the US Dept of Defense have been working on a solar plane: http://cleantechnica.com/2010/10/04/boeing-solar-plane-solareagle-could-circle-earth-for-fiveyears/
      + NASA & Boeing: http://cleantechnica.com/2012/12/17/boeing-sugar-volt/

      • Conrad Clement

        Hey, what about Mc Cready’s solar plane that took off from Paris Le Bourget, climbed to 9000 feet and landed five hours later on the other side of the Channel? (That was in 1983, I believe).

    • Altair IV

      From a similar previous story I gathered that while it takes a lot of energy to get an aircraft into the air, keeping it aloft takes relatively little. With a bit more work on energy density it may be possible to at least handle the middle stretches of a flight with solar/battery tech. And certainly renewable biofuels can replace fossil fuels during the take-off and landings.

  • Otis11

    So the question is – how much would we have to improve batteries to make them practical for current commercial aviation?

    If that’s not feasible why not just turn toward hydrogen?

    • Conrad Clement

      Just how naive has one to be to believe Russia’s Ministry of Defense, who investigated the use of solar energy in light aircraft, to have stopped the project in 2010 due to “unsatisfactory results”?

      For any Ministry of Defense (and especially the Pentagone) unsatisfactory results in this respect mean that they just found that there was huge potential for the civil society to challenge the absolute military control of the airspace — i.e., their joker for power enforcement from above — with myriads of personal ultra-light electric aircraft…

      Moreover, Russia is living off its huge fossil fuel resources…

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