The year of 2013 has proven to be an exciting time for solar power. Not only are developments being made to bring down the cost of solar cell production, as well as improve their yield and storage. A number of solar powered applications are also being produced which demonstrate just how versatile solar energy can be. And strangely enough, a good deal of them appear to have wings.
The first is the Solar Impulse, a solar powered plane that began conducting a cross-country promotional flight before taking off for a trip around the world. Officially launched back in 2003, this brainchild of Bertrand Piccard – grandson of the legendary balloon aviator Auguste Piccard – just a few years after he himself completing a round-the-world balloon flight. It was in the course of making this flight that Piccard realized just how dependent the world still is on fossil fuel, and sought to create a plane that needed no fuel whatsoever.
Building on concepts like NASA’s Helios Prototype – another solar electric-powered flying wing designed to operate at high altitudes for long periods of time – Piccard and his colleague André Borschberg (a pilot and engineer) managed to create a prototype by 2009. They received financing and technology from a number of private companies, including Deutsche Bank, Omega SA, Solvay, Schindler, Bayer MaterialScience, and Toyota.
Naturally, the development of the prototype has been having an effect across a wide range of industries, and those who participated in making it a reality are reaping the benefits. Already the materials used in the creation in the airframe are being considered for use in refrigerators, and the lithium-ion batteries used in the second craft are expected to power everything from cell phones to cars in coming years.
Already, the plane has made numerous flights. The first flight took place on July 7th-8th, 2010 and lasted 26 hours, including nearly nine hours of night flying. In 2012, Piccard and Borschberg conducted successful solar flights from Switzerland to Spain and Morocco. The cross-country flight began on May 1st, with the first leg starting in San Fransisco and concluding in Pheonix to significant fanfare.
The flight is expected to last several more weeks and involve numerous stops before concluding in New York. The worldwide flight using the 2nd version of the craft, originally slated for 2014, is expected to take place in 2015. Those looking to keep track of the “Across America” mission can do so on their website. During the next legs of the flight, Piccard will be making landings in Dallas, St. Louis, Washington D.C., and New York.
Ultimately, flying the plane is still a very challenging feet. The airframe is extremely light, which means it is sensitive to turbulence and wind. That means it needs to take off and land in calm weather, and the plane can’t fly at all through big thunderstorms. And as Piccard himself notes:
If you fly it like a normal airplane you overcontrol, you cannot steer and land. You need to learn how to be extremely careful, make little moves with the control, and wait until a reaction comes. You have to anticipate enormously, and it’s not very stable, so you need to fly with the rudders.
But ultimately, the goal is not to create a fleet of solar-powered planes. As Piccard himself noted, the goal here is to stimulate “innovation for clean technology and energy”. Alas, there are some benefits to this plane that no other aviator can brag about. For one, the plane can theoretically fly forever since its fuel is provided by the sun and its batteries have demonstrated the ability to keep it going at night.
As Piccard described it: “It’s a feeling of freedom.” I can imagine!