Rolling hills, greening woodlands, and orderly farms grace Pennsylvania’s Lehigh River valley, where Solar Impulse 2 landed on the world’s first solar-powered circumnavigation last week. Small cities—Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton—dot the piedmont countryside.
You would never expect the peaceful Lehigh Valley to be hosting a high-tech superstar of the 21st century. However, the area’s coal mines and steel plants ushered in the American Industrial Revolution. Philadelphia and New York lie within a 100-mile radius, and the sub-Appalachian hills are the fastest-growing region in Pennsylvania.
CleanTechnica reporters in the valley found that it also houses many light planes and a small airport designated “international” only a year ago. On weekends and holidays, dozens of gliders—powerless cousins of ordinary aircraft as well as the experimental Si2—lazily circle its skies.
Joining the gliders now is a new aircraft as wide as a 747. It looks like another glider but really flies using power like a regular plane. This gigantic single-winged dragonfly has now traveled two-thirds of the way around the world without any liquid fuel. It has never needed a fill-up of aviation gas from airport hoses. Solar energy alone, captured by SunPower solar panels and stored chemically in lithium-ion batteries, has propelled the entire trip.
The plane’s inventor and pioneer Bertrand Piccard and Air Force pilot–engineer André Borschberg, CEO of Solar Impulse, are taking turns flying the record-shattering vehicle on its multi-stage odyssey around the world. Solar Impulse 2, as we covered, originally left its home base in Abu Dhabi, capital of the seven United Arab Emirates of the Middle East, in March 2015. (The original Solar Impulse, this plane’s prototype, set 8 world records on earlier journeys. Si1 was the first solar plane ever to fly through the night, something we covered way back in 2010; the first to fly between two continents; and the first to travel across the United States.)
With more solar cells, more powerful motors, and a 20% longer wingspan, the newer aircraft made stops in Oman, Myanmar, China, and Japan before starting US travel. Thermal damage during the leg between Japan and Hawaii delayed its flight during the winter, but it is back in the air again.
Over the past few weeks, the featherweight carbon-fiber craft has sped across the United States from Hawaii, where CleanTechnica met with it for the 3rd time, to northern California, to Phoenix, then across the nation’s Tornado Alley into Dayton, Ohio, on May 26, 2016. Orville and Wilbur Wright, the American brothers who invented, built, and flew the world’s first successful airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, hailed from the Dayton area. Piloted on the next leg of the journey by its Swiss inventor, the plane headed off from Dayton to the Lehigh Valley before dawn last Wednesday.
It took Piccard 16 hours and 49 minutes to guide the slow-flying plane carefully into the Lehigh Valley. (Si2 moves at about the speed of the average car.) Along the way, the pilot snapped a happy selfie from a camera outside the cockpit. Clear skies and a light breeze that night carried the aircraft onto the tarmac to cheers from the crowd of solar advocates, Swiss visitors, and rapt locals who waited there for the nighttime touchdown.
Piccard’s fuel for the trip? “Passion,” he told a news conference outside the Lehigh Valley hangar. Later, he elaborated for CleanTechnica:
“The future energy of the world is electric. Not necessarily renewable energy, because renewable does not always mean profitable. It is cleantech energy that will power development in the future. Efficient, profitable cleantech.”
The unconventional solar vehicle will take off for JFK airport in New York City on the last US leg of its high and quiet journey within the next few days. Join and follow Solar Impulse 2 at the #futureisclean hashtag on Twitter, and stay with CleanTechnica as we bring you more details on the plane’s technical systems and on the highlights of Si2’s upcoming layover in New York.