Solar Aviation: Around the World in 80 Days by 2015

A recent article from Forbes introduced me to a new technology I honestly would not have expected to exist: manned airplanes powered by solar energy. [1] Solar Impulse – the name of the Swiss company and the actual plane– offers an addition to a field that has been steadily developing since the 1970s. [2] The plane contains approximately 12,000 solar cells and four lithium-polymer batteries. These solar cells cover the 208 foot wingspan and give the craft an feather-like appearance. [1] After reading the headline and looking at the photo below, I found myself thinking of Icarus, the overconfident boy in Greek mythos who flew too close the sun. (A nerdy confession I know, but hopefully my ninth grade English teacher would be proud.) The story is one of hubris and failed ambition, and I could not help but think it applicable here. Interesting and innovative though they may be, are such advances in solar aviation really helping us combat the energy crisis?

The first solar-powered flight took place in California on November 4, 1974. “Sunrise I” was a tiny unmanned craft that weighed practically nothing and flew for approximately 20 minutes. A few years later, the first piloted solar aircraft (“Solar One”) used nickel-cadmium batteries with some success. [2] Progress in the field developed through the decades, with crafts such as the “Gossamer Penguin”—first to fly purely on solar energy, the “Sunseeker”—now the only solar aircraft in continuous operation, “Helios”—which reached nearly 30,000 feet in 2001, and Alan Cocconi’s craft—first to fly through an entire night, all contributing their fair share in honing solar aviation technology. [2] [3] But the Solar Impulse project is seeking to make the achievements in solar aviation less of a novelty and more of a practical solution to energy concerns. The company has aspirations to be the first to circumnavigate the globe with a larger aircraft in 2015. [4] The current “Solar Impulse” uses electricity produced from solar cells that can generate up to 45 kW of power. There are four, 10-horsepower electric engines on board that allow the plane to average about 40 miles per hour. [1]

That’s not very fast. In fact, numerous precautions are taken into account in order to avoid inflight complications, such as limiting weight (“Solar Impulse” is 3,500 pounds) and taking off early in the morning then landing at night. [1] An engineer and pilot associated with the project stated that the commercial applicability of solar aircrafts was still four decades away. And yet, the Solar Impulse project has demonstrated that solar energy can be a “stand-alone fuel”. [4] These early stages in developing a technology are admittedly slow. At this moment, solar aviation may not be immediately applicable to our energy problems. But commercial airlines are burning through fossil fuels and the innovation spurred by companies like Solar Impulse may someday be a saving grace for transportation. This is a long-term investment that may prove to be more of a gamble, but I’d rather take that risk now even if at the end of the day we get a little too close to the sun, our wax melts, and the whole project crashes and burns…metaphorically, of course.







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One response to “Solar Aviation: Around the World in 80 Days by 2015

  1. Interesting post! I had no idea that solar-powered flight had been around for so long. My dad, who became a pilot shortly after that first success, will surely find this post quite interesting. So, thanks!

    You asked a pretty pressing question in that first paragraph, when you posed the inquiry about whether or not this is actually helping us combat the energy crisis. After reading your post it seems like you have mixed feelings on the matter, and I have to admit that I agree with that sentiment.

    I personally am skeptical about solar’s ability to match the sheer girth of the jet engine’s power output. Unless some serious developments in PV technology occur over the next few decades, or unless a completely revolutionized method of solar power capture is invented, I simply cannot believe that commercial airplanes will one day be powered solely by the sun. There is simply too much demand for quick and high-capacity flights.

    You got me thinking, however, about the use of biofuels in aviation. Based on some searching, this appears to be a much newer technology than solar-powered planes. It looks like one of the main factors standing in the way of biofuel use is the cost of production (of cleaner-burning fuels, i.e. the ones that won’t actually increase greenhouse gas emissions). Not only that, but biofuels are land-intensive, which creates yet another barrier to their widespread use; they must compete with space needed to grow food crops. Overall, there is still a whole lot of research and development that needs to be done before biofuels become a reasonable alternative to our traditional jet fuels.

    I wonder if there is some way to combine wind capture with solar, or with biofuels, in order to create a cleaner aircraft. Like you said, and as was mentioned in class a while back, airplanes are some of the worst offenders when it comes to fossil fuel-fired pollution. And, to top it off, air travel is likely to remain popular and even increase in demand in years to come. Do you think that it would be feasible to combine wind power with another technology, once the plane is in flight? After all, one of the most important aspects of clean energy is high efficiency, and with that, using what resources are on hand.

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