Powering Planes with the Sun

We’ve heard of Around the World in 80 Days (or 97 if you’re Barrington Irving). That’s impressive, but can it be done with no fuel? Though that issue came up a lot during Barrington’s trip, Solar Impulse plans to make those worries a thing of the past with a plane that can fly on nothing but solar power.

“Perpetual flight”, said Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, co-founders of Solar Impulse. In 2003 they announced their dream to build a plane that could reach 9,000 feet and fly on the sun’s energy by day, then descend to lower altitudes and cruise on stored battery power by night. They both share a distaste for hybrid planes and the biofuels of today that offer less of a solution than what they are proposing. “No fuel, no CO2, no pollution” was their mindset. These ambitions all culminated into The Solar Impulse HB-SIA, a fragile-looking, miniscule, one-person plane. Comprised of a carbon skeleton draped in a flexible polycarbonate “skin”, it resembles a hunger-stricken bird…if that bird had a 210-foot wingspan. All that wing makes it aerodynamically efficient and gives a very generous surface area for its solar cells. The problem it faces right now? It flies 45 miles per hour…on a sunny day…12 times slower than a commercial plane’s cruising speed). At least they’ve got the energy-storing technology to power HB-SIA through eight hours of darkness each night. Though it may still seem a bit from our grasps, this year’s rigorous test flights will tell if their dreams will ever see daylight.