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  • Around the world in a solar airplane

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2009
Krista D. Zanolli,

ZÜRICH, Switzerland – The world’s first totally solar-powered airplane is ready to circumnavigate the globe. Designed to fly day and night, the aircraft demonstrates how new technology can be harnessed to fight climate change.

“It was a dream. Today it’s an airplane. Tomorrow it will be an ambassador of renewable energies and energy savings – flying day and night with no fuel and no pollution,” Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard said at the unveiling of a prototype of the plane.

Piccard and his partner, André Borschberg, presented their aircraft – dubbed Solar Impulse HB-SIA – at Dübendorf Airport near Zurich on June 26. The plane will begin test flights by year’s end.

Piccard first made history in 1999 when he circled the globe nonstop in the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon.

The Solar Impulse HB-SIA (top) has a comparable wingspan to that of a Boeing 747-400 (bottom). Courtesy of Solar Impulse.

“From the 3.7 tons of liquid propane [that Piccard and co-balloonist Brian Jones] had at the start [of their voyage], only 40 kilograms were left at landing,” explained Borschberg, adding that the historic success could have turned into a failure because of the lack of fuel. “It was then that Piccard decided his next flight around the world would require no fuel – totally independent of any fossil energy.”

After a six-year effort, sponsored in part by chemical and materials specialist Solvay SA of Brussels, Belgium, Swiss watchmaker Omega and Deutsche Bank of Frankfurt, Germany, Piccard and Borschberg believe that their breakthrough design will prove the business viability and profitability of renewable energy.

Built around a carbon fibre-honeycomb composite to keep it extremely light, the craft uses super-efficient solar cells, batteries, electric motors and propellers to get it through the dark hours.

Despite a wingspan equal to that of a Boeing 747-400, the Solar Impulse weighs about the same as an average car – 1.7 tons. About 12,000 solar cells are mounted on the gliderlike wings, supplying renewable energy to the four 10-horsepower electric motors. The solar panels charge the plane’s lithium polymer batteries during the day, allowing it to fly at night.

“If Solar Impulse really manages to fly around the workd with no fuel – only on solar power – nobody will be able to pretend anymore that it is impossible to do the same for cars, for heating or cooling systems, for computers and so on,” Piccard said.

After fine-tuning on the ground, the aircraft should make its first test flights between now and the end of this year. A first complete night flight is scheduled for 2010 and, as the pilots’ confidence increases, they will move to a day-night circle, a feat never before accomplished in a piloted solar-powered plane.

Although the vehicle is expected to be able to fly nonstop around the globe, Piccard said he will make five long hops, sharing flying duties with Borschberg.

“The airplane could do it theoretically nonstop – but not the pilot,” Piccard said. “In a balloon, you can sleep because it stays in the air even if you sleep. We believe the maximum for one pilot is five days.”

The results from the Solar Impulse HB-SIA tests will serve in the design and manufacture of a second aircraft, the HB-SIB, which is expected to circumnavigate the globe in 2012 in five stages, each lasting several days.

“Our goal is to share how exciting, how positive it can be to invent another future, to invent alternative ways to behave and to act, thanks to the new technologies that can reduce the impact of human beings on the environment,” Piccard said.

Supporters can enroll at to receive news in real time, to adopt a solar cell on the wing, to reserve a VIP visit to the Solar Impulse base or to place their names on the aircraft's fuselage.

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