The first nonstop solar-powered flight around the world is being planned for 2015. The plane, the Solar Impulse, was designed by Bertrand Piccard, who was the first person to travel around the world nonstop in a balloon back in 1999.
The main innovation of the Solar Impulse is its capacity to fly overnight, thanks to its energy-efficient battery system and its light spartan build. For a plane, it’s very light, weighing less than an SUV. It’s powered by 12,000 solar cells covering its very long wings.
Because of its build and battery technology, it’s able to fly nonstop through the dark night skies, potentially staying airborne indefinitely, storing power during the day and using some of it at night.
“These cells capture the energy of the sun and transform it into electricity,” Mr. Piccard explains. “This electricity goes simultaneously to the engine and to the batteries. Then we reach the next sunrise, and we capture the sun again, and we can continue, theoretically forever.”
Mr. Piccard, a psychologist and aeronaut, thought up the idea about 13 years ago after he first circumnavigated the globe nonstop in a balloon. That trip required an enormous amount of fuel and resources, so he was motivated to design something more efficient and self-sufficient if he was going to try something similar again.
So, in 2009, after much research and design, Mr. Piccard and his business partner André Borschberg unveiled the Solar Impulse, a solar-powered plane independent of any fuel except for the Sun. One year after the plane was unveiled, they demonstrated its effectiveness by performing an overnight flight over Switzerland lasting 26 hours and 9 minutes. In June of this year, the plane made a record international flight from Spain to Morocco.
“Videos posted on the Solar Impulse website capture the odd craft slowly taking off and floating through the air,” CS Monitor writes. “It’s ideal flying speed is 30 miles per hour. What it lacks in brute, energetic force, it seems to make up for in quiet grace. ‘Flying’ doesn’t quite capture the plane’s motion, as it appears almost suspended in midair.”
The Solar Impulse is not even close to being market-ready (though, of course, there must be a market for something like this), despite about $100 million of investment over the course of about 10 years. One of the main issues remaining is that, because it is extremely light, storms are particularly dangerous for it. And because of its highly efficient use of energy, the cockpit has no climate control. And the plane also remains prone to stalling at low speeds.
“Borschberg and Piccard hope to complete the first purely solar-powered flight across the US next spring. The entrepreneurs’ plan is for the Impulse to take a 20-day trip around the globe in 2015.”
Source: CS Monitor
Image Credits: solarimpulse.com