This morning I witnessed one of those rare events where a smart man announces to the worlds press that the impossible is possible, and then sets off on an adventure to prove it. Unfortunately I think the significance is going to be lost on most people. What I’m talking about is Bertrand Picard’s Solar Impulse aircraft, a solar powered electric airplane which the Solar Impulse team plans to pilot around the world in a couple years. The aircraft set off this morning on the first leg of a flight across the U.S., leaving the San Francisco Bay Area and arriving in New York City in about 2 months.
I’ve written a pair of news articles about the flight and the Solar Impulse:
Solar Impulse Airplane Prepares for Cross-Country Sun-Powered Flight
Solar Impulse starts historic cross-country solar powered airplane flight
If the name Bertrand Picard tweaks your memory, it’s because he flew a balloon around the world in 1999. If you’re the right kind of nerd, he’s not that Picard. (you know who you are) After the balloon flight he developed an idea about flying with renewable energy, specifically solar energy, and set about creating a team to build an airplane. However the plan was met by skepticism and airplane manufacturers telling him the idea was impossible.
Before takeoff, Picard described the technology as a win-win which could
create jobs, sustain growth, while cleaning up the transportation
environment. “If we want to have a good future, we need this clean
technology. We hope that the political world will also globally
understand that if we want to have a good future, we need this clean
technology. It needs to get out of the labs, the start-ups, the
Universities, or experimental airplanes, to really be used everywhere,
in our world, for cars, for houses, heating and cooling systems,
lighting systems. With the technologies we have on board, we can divide
by two the energy consumption of our world, and produce half of the
rest with renewable resources. This is the type of message that people
really have to understand, because that’s the way forward. That’s the
innovation and the adventure of the 21st Century.”
Essentially he said to the world press :- See that airplane behind me? The technology on that airplane would, if put into wide use, slash fossil fuel usage to a quarter of what it is today. It doesn’t matter how many experts told us this was impossible, let me show you how the world could be re-imagined.
But, how many people are going to listen or understand?
What he means by this big statement is explained in part by another thing he said about the Solar Impulse aircraft. This is an aircraft where you can start flying with an empty battery pack in the morning, and during the day the solar panels will collect enough energy to fly all day AND end the day with a full battery pack. That full battery pack is enough for the airplane to fly all night, at which it repeats the cycle of collecting energy and flying all day.
This is an airplane which can theoretically fly indefinitely, if it weren’t for the limitations of the human pilot. Make it a robotic airplane and it really could fly indefinitely.
But this isn’t just about airplanes that can fly indefinitely. It’s about technology that could completely reshape the environmental impact we make on the earth, and the energy/resource footprint of our society.
Electricity — as a fuel — is extremely efficient. Electric vehicles have the potential to completely and totally reshape the impact of the transportation sector, and drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels.
The Solar Impulse airplane ties an electric drive train with advanced lithium-ion batteries and the most efficient lightweight solar panels they could find from any manufacturer. This is a potent combination that today can enable an airplane to fly around the world, but there are looming breakthroughs that will make all these technologies even more capable. Solar panels with greater efficiency (performance), and battery packs with greater energy density are being worked on.
Other technology on-board includes carbon fiber, carbon fiber composites, navigation technology, insulation technology and more. This is an extremely light airplane, thanks to the extensive use of carbon fiber and composites. Reducing the weight of cars and trucks would save a lot of fuel all by itself.
As a technology demonstration the Solar Impulse is amazing and inspiring. But, as Bertrand Picard said, why keep this technology relegated to experimental airplanes or far off research labs? Why not start deploying it in a major way?
Instead of that we have stonewalling from vested business interests and their paid-off politicians.
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