Duebendorf, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – “Yesterday, it was a dream. Today, it is an airplane – tomorrow it will be an ambassador of renewable energies”, Bertrand Piccard told journalists gathered Friday 26 June for the unveiling of his futuristic fuel-free airplane Solar Impulse.
Piccard is the head of a project to build and fly a plane that uses only the sun’s energy to fly non-stop around the world.
Commercial flying with solar planes may be far in the future, but the project is designed in part to fire the dreams that could make this happen.
Piccard is also the scion of a Geneva family of adventurers. He made his own claim to fame in 1999, when he and British balloonist Brian Jones became the first people to navigate the globe in a balloon, beating out competitors that included Richard Branson and Steve Fossett.
Piccard said Friday that his experience in the balloon convinced him to find a zero-fuel solution to flying.
His partner and the project’s CEO, André Borschberg, is a former Swiss military pilot and entrepreneur. Together they have spent 10 years on the Solar Impulse project. Solar Impulse is the prototype of a plane that its creators hope will circumnavigate the world in 2012 powered exclusively by the energy of the sun.
The almost 12,000 solar cells on its wings and tail will convert the sun’s energy to electricity to power the plane’s four propellers. Total output: that of a scooter.
At 64 metres, the plane has the wingspan of an Airbus A340, yet it weighs only 1,600 kg, about that of a car. And a quarter of this is in the lithium-polymer batteries that power the engines.
Only 10 percent of the weight is payload: seat, food, water, uniform, and pilot for a total of 160 kg.
Solar Impulse is designed to be able to fly at night by storing the sun’s energy in its batteries during the day, when it climbs slowly to 9,000m, then discharge its potential energy and that stored in its batteries to take it through the night as it slowly descends to a height of 1.5km. Then it repeats the cycle. It has to avoid adverse winds and storms because it is designed to operate under optimal conditions. And it needs to have sunshine every day. For the time being, a Boeing 747 need not fear competition from Solar Impulse.
Much of the critical research and testing to overcome the daunting technical challenges is being done by several EPFL (polytechnic institute) laboratories in Lausanne and the Institute of Microtechnology in Neuchatel, for example finding the right solution to encapsulate the very thin solar cells so they can withstand vibration and stresses from the outside.
With a budget of only EUR70 million, the project cannot afford cutting-edge technology. The batteries, the solar panels, the composite materials and the information technology are off-the-shelf. Part of the promotional effort at the unveiling was designed to encourage people everywhere to contribute even small amounts to the cause. Each individual solar cell can be sponsored and will contribute to the progress of the project.
One of the guests for the unveiling was Giovanni Bisignani, head of IATA, the international airline trade body that represents most of the industry. Bisignani is the man that made 700 million airplane tickets issued every year disappear by forcing the world’s airlines to move to e-tickets. He has committed the airline industry to cap emissions by 2020 even if demand grows. Solar Impulse is a plane that could spark more research that would lead the way to the energy savings and zero-carbon emissions that Bisignani wants commercial airliners to achieve by 2050.