Last week I posted an article about efforts by the FAA to make aviation more sustainable. While the stated goal of a 33% reduction in fuel consumption is certainly impressive, the approaches under consideration are all essentially incremental. What about an approach that achieves 100% savings? That is exactly what the folks at the Swiss company Solar Impulse are talking about. Only they are not just talking about it. They recently completed a successful 26-hour test flight of an entirely solar powered aircraft. If that doesn’t sound particularly impressive, perhaps you need to take into account the fact that a significant portion of that flight needed to take place at night.
No, they didn’t use lunar energy, just some conventional technology and a lot of good engineering. What that means, at least in theory, is that if the plane can store enough energy in the course of a day to stay aloft from dusk until the following sunrise, it could potentially stay in the air indefinitely.
That’s not CEO and pilot Andre Borschberg’s immediate goal, however. All Borschberg wants to do at this stage, is fly the thing around the world, something his partner Bertrand Piccard has already done in a balloon back in 1999.
Taking off at just before 7:00 on Wednesday morning, July7 from the airport in the tiny Swiss town of Paverne, 30 miles outside of Bern, which also happens to be the home of the Swiss Government’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau, the Solar Impulse landed on the same runway at exactly 9:00AM the following morning. Leave it to the Swiss to be right on time.
The plane has a 207 foot wingspan which boasts 12,000 solar cells. During the course of the flight, which consisted of a series of long gentle loops over the Jura mountains west of the Swiss Alps, the plane reached an altitude of 28,000 feet. Borschberg, who endured freezing temperatures at night, made a picture perfect landing drawing cheers from a crowd of supporters. “The night is quite long, so to see the first rays of dawn and the sun returning in the morning — that was a gift,” he said.
Flight director, former NASA chief Rogers E. Smith said, “We ended up with perhaps 20 percent more energy than we in the most optimistic way projected.”
The team is planning a more efficient plane with a larger cockpit in preparation for the round the world flight which they hope to achieve in 2013. Piccard said he was confident the success of the night flight would help to secure the $19 million still needed for the privately funded project’s $95 million total budget.
While the team says this proves that emissions-free air travel is possible, they don’t see solar technology replacing conventional jet propulsion any time soon. Rather, the project’s overarching purpose is to demonstrate and promote new energy-efficient and renewable technologies. Still, you have to wonder what the Wright brothers would say if they were alive to see it.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the 2009 novel Vapor Trails, a story of an oil company executive and the spill he was responsible for.
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