Just when you were getting over your fear of flying, the solar techies decided to come up with a plan to do away with fuel-based engines in airplanes. But wait – before you swear you’ll never fly again, check out the latest in solar powered flight machines getting rave reviews by the solar and aeronautical engineering communities.
According to Joel Whaley of Tristate Solar and Wind Corporation, “heat degrades solar energy.” This refers to the issues with decreased efficiency in solar cells within certain environmental conditions requiring additional panels to compensate for the loss. He and other solar product providers are monitoring the solar developments in the aeronautical field with interest.
So how can a plane traveling that much closer to the sun than for example, solar powered cars manage to stay airborne? The designers of the Solar Impulse have proven it possible. Apparently the sheer action of slicing through the atmosphere at 70 km/h in high altitudes helps to keep the solar cells cool enough to operate with maximum efficiency. The craft features many other futuristic components. The company website reports:
“Carbon fibre structure, propulsion chain, flight instrumentation, everything has been designed to save energy, to resist the hostile conditions facing airplane and pilot at high altitudes and to marry weight restraints and essential resistance.”
The aircraft is a strange looking bird – a disproportionately huge wingspan makes it look like a dragonfly on steroids. The wings are almost three times wider than the length of body but they are needed to support the bank of 12,000 solar cells that generate sufficient energy to keep it ticking all through the night.
In July 2010, the Solar Impulse flew a total of 26 hours and 9 minutes without stopping, using only solar energy that was collected and stored in batteries during the day. One of the primary motivating forces behind the project, Bertrand Piccard believes the technology places mankind on the vanguard of perpetual flight. He is recognized for being the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon.
This aircraft is the prototype for one that is targeted to make a nonstop flight around the world in 2012. The next prototype on the drawing board will be used to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
For us as consumers, it brings the possibility of using sustainable energy for air travel that much closer. It is another step toward breaking free from the dependency on fossil fuels and respecting our environment.