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October 23, 2021

Solar Impulse plane to circle globe on just solar and storage

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Giles Parkinson, RenewEconomy editor

Am ambitious project to try and ‘do the impossible’ – and fly a plane around the world without a single drop of fuel will begin in late February.

The flight route for the Solar Impulse 2 was unveiled today in Abu Dhabi, where the circumnavigation will begin in just over a month, and all going well, finish at the same place in June or July.

To do that it will stop in 12 countries (see below) having flown via Oman, India, Myanmar and China, and then undertaking long flights across the Pacific to Hawaii and the west coast of the US, and then on to New York, and then across the Atlantic to Europe and north Africa and back to Abu Dhabi.

The flight on a plane with the wingspan of a Boeing 747 and the weight of a family car will be a test of technology – and the ability to power the flight only with solar and battery storage, and of human endeavour, with some flights across oceans to go 5 days and nights without a break.

Solar Impulse project co-founder Bertrand Picard (left).
Solar Impulse project co-founder Bertrand Picard (left).

‘This is to prove that the impossible is possible,’ said co-founder and co pilot Bertrand Piccard (above left) part of a family with a long history of adventurer. And, say Piccard and fellow pilot Andre Borschberg, it will bring a strong political message.

‘It is to show that the technologies we need to address climate change exist today,’ Piccard says.

‘Many governments say we need more R&D, we need to wait more, before we have renewable energies in their country. Forget that, we have today enough energy efficiency technologies to halve the consumption of the world, and renewable technologies that can provide half of the rest.

‘For all those people who do not believe it is possible, we want to show that a plane can fly around the world with no fuel day and night. No one can ever say that renewable energy is just an anecdote for green people.’

The first version of Solar Impulse achieved the first night flight (26 hours) in 2010, and its first intercontinental flight in 2012. It flew across the US in 2013.

The latest version has a wingspan of 72 metres, and weighs 2,300kg. It has 17,248 solar cells built into the wing to supply four 17.4hp electric motors, running at more than 94 per cent efficiency. Those cells will also recharge lithium batteries weighing 733kg that will allow the aircraft to fly at night, and therefore have virtually unlimited autonomy.

The latest version of the Solar Impulse, a plane that flies on solar power from onboard panels and battery storage.
The latest version of the Solar Impulse, a plane that flies on solar power from onboard panels and battery storage.

The project is backed by an array of major industrial giants, such as ABB, Schindler, Omega, Solway, Google, Swiss Re, Bayer Material Science, Altran and Swisscom. The Abu Dhabi renewable energy company Masdar is hosting the HQ and providing logistical support. All have said that the R&D put into this project have already been translated into commercial products, including solar cells, battery storage, installation, and coatings.

The flight will not go un-noticed. Piccard and Borschberg have deliberately chosen a route that takes it to the world’s most populated areas, including India, and the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing in China.

The flight will be broadcast live, with five cameras on board, at its website, and plans a massive social media campaign, and educational stops during the trip.

Piccard is the latest in a ‘dynasty’ of explorers and scientists whose feats include flying non-stop around the world in a balloon. The Star Trek character Captain Jean-Luc Picard, was named after his great uncle, one of the pioneers of the ballooning industry.

The route, as this graph below shows, involves four trajectories that will last at least 100 hours. The plane will fly at between 50km and 100km an hour, and at about 9,000 metres.  The speed reflects decision about efficiency and storage potential. The plane needs to generate enough power to fly the plane during the day, store enough to go through the night and still have some left over for the following day.

‘I’m more afraid to live in a world that burns one billion tonnes of oil every hour that destroys the planet, and pollutes the environment, rather than fly solar-powered planes,’ Piccard said.

Planned flight path of the Solar Impulse
Planned flight path of the Solar Impulse

This article was first published in RenewEconomy.


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