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Solar impulse: Flying round the world using only renewable energy

Posted by Alex Barrett on 22 April 2016 at 8:10 pm

An ambitious project is underway to test the limits of solar powered transportation. The aim of the Solar Impulse project is fairly straightforward: Circumnavigate the Earth in a plane powered only by solar power.

Completing that goal has required an astounding feat of engineering. The Solar Impulse 2 plane has a wingspan of 71.9 m, larger than that of a Boeing 747. The plane itself is much smaller, with every effort being taken to make it as lightweight as possible. The plane’s wings and fuselage are covered by tens of thousands of photovoltaic cells with a total area of 269.5 m2. This solar array, rated at 66 kWp, provides enough energy to charge the batteries that power the propellers on this lightweight aircraft day and night.

The plane can reach a maximum speed of 140 km/h (87 mph), but its cruising speed is much lower, just 90 km/h (55 mph). This means that it only travels as fast as a car, and so its journeys take days to complete. The plane has to travel even slower than this at night, so as to conserve power when its solar cells are not charging.

The solar impulse project is led by André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, Swiss engineers and aviators. They are taking turns to pilot the plane on its historic flight. They state that their aircraft is “a flying laboratory full of clean technologies” which will “continue to promote the use of renewable energies and energy efficiency on the ground, for a better quality of life.”

Their solar planes have set numerous records during several years of testing with increasingly ambitious flights. They were the first solar powered plane to be able to fly at night, and to cross from one continent to another. They have already achieved the longest ever solar powered flight in the history of aviation, but are still working to complete their circumnavigation of the world.

On 9 March 2015 the solar Impulse 2 set off from Abu Dhabi, travelling east, to begin its round the world flight. So far it has flown as far as Hawaii, but the journey has not been without its problems. The flight was delayed in Japan, while repairs were made to the plane. It was then grounded in Hawaii for months, undergoing repairs from the first leg of the pacific crossing. It has been awaiting the best weather conditions to continue its flight. On 21 April 2016 the plane set off, flying across the other half of the pacific, from Hawaii to California. As I write this it is still underway. Live updates from the flight can be found at the Solar Impulse website.

We wish the Solar Impulse team all the best in their round the world flight. This is an excellent way to highlight to advances in solar technology in recent years and an inspiration to anyone hoping that we might one day be able to power all aspects of our civilisation with clean, renewable energy.

Image Credit: Solar Impulse

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