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.  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.  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.  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.  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.   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.  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. 
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.  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”.  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.