There is no shortage of initiatives aimed at raising awareness of the importance of reducing air pollution and stopping global warming around the world, and the latest involves something that has never been done before – a trip around the world in a solar-powered electric airplane.
The Solar Impulse 2 is a solar-powered plane designed and developed by Swiss aeronaut Bertrand Piccard in collaboration with a team of engineers. The SI2 took off from the Al Bateen Executive Airport in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, in a bid to complete the first journey around the world in an airplane without using a single drop of fuel.
Solar Impulse 2 was piloted by André Borschberg, the co-founder of Solar Impulse, during the first leg of this historic journey, from Abu Dhabi to Muscat, the capital of Oman, where it landed after about 12 hours. It was a 215-mile flight, which makes it one of the shortest legs of the 21 000-mile journey, that is expected to be completed in around five months. After it landed in Muscat, the controls of the plane were taken over by Bertrand Piccard, who then embarked on a flight to Ahmedabad, India, 912 and 13 hours later, traveling at an average speed of 115 mph. Some of the next legs of this trip will include stops in Myanmar, China, and the United States. The project is backed by Google, Omega, Toyota, as well as Prince Albert of Monaco and British tycoon Richard Branson.
Although quite large, the Solar Impulse 2 is pretty lightweight. It only weighs in at about 5,000 pounds, thanks to the fact that it is made out of carbon fiber, an extremely lightweight material. It has a 236-foot wingspan, which is longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 747, with a total of 17,248 solar cells installed on the wings. They generate electricity for the lithium-ion batteries with a total capacity of 165 kilowatt-hours, which power four electric motors that deliver a combined output 17 horsepower. The pilots said that during the day, the plane will travel at around 28,000-30,000 miles, and a little lower at night, for increased energy efficiency.
It’s a single-seat plane, with a pretty tight cockpit, where the pilots will have to stay for hours at a time, and try to stay focused at all times. In order to keep themselves from falling asleep, they will wear goggles that will emit visual warnings to wake them up from time to time.
The main goal of this ambitious project is to promote green air travel and prove that fuel-less planes can be a viable alternative to conventional airplanes that are pretty noisy and highly polluting. Although no one should expect that planes like the Solar Impulse 2 will replace conventional aircraft in the near future, it presents a pretty good example for what airplanes could look like further down the road, and it should help convince the world that solar power can be considered a reliable source of energy that can be applied in air travel. What do you think? Is the Solar Impulse 2 just a novel experiment and sensational story… or is its record-breaking accomplishment a solar industry game-changer?
Jordan Perch is a transport analyst and expert in consumer affairs for the automotive industry. He is an author on topics related to public transport, specifically the use of ride-sharing and car-sharing services, and their impact on mass transit. He is a regular contributor to SolarFeeds, the IHS GlobalSpec and DMV.com’s blog and a proud owner of a Tesla Model S.