In March 2015, the Solar Impulse took off from Abu Dhabi on a journey to fly around the world while using zero fuel. As a solar powered electric airplane, the Solar Impulse flies in the face of conventional wisdom, in that it flies long distances without burning liquid fuel. It instead collects electricity through solar panels embedded in the airplanes surface, storing the electricity in batteries. The batteries enable flying at night, and the Solar Impulse has taken several multi-day trips such as the just-completed flight from Seville Spain to Cairo Egypt, which took 48 hours.
The vast majority of airplanes fly on fossil fuels, with the primary exception being a few instances of biofuel experimentation. Conventional wisdom says an electric airplane is a non-starter for anything but minuscule flights. Indeed, there are some electric trainer aircraft on the market now with flight times of an hour or so, enough for a training flight and not much more. How, then, could an electric airplane dare to travel around the world?
The Solar Impulse is about to finish its around-the-world adventure, and has completed several multi-day long distance flights including crossings of the Pacific Ocean (Japan to Hawaii, Hawaii to Silicon Valley), the Atlantic (New York to Seville Spain), and now the length of the Mediterranean (Seville to Cairo). Its method for completing long distance flights demonstrates a model we all need to grok, and perhaps adopt to power our cities. It’s a model the plant kingdom has practiced for hundreds of millions of years.
The Solar Impulse has solar panels covering every surface. Those panels collect enough electricity during the day to not only power the airplane for daytime flying, but enough energy is collected so the Solar Impulse can fly all night. In the morning with the battery pack standing at about 30%, the Solar Impulse begins collecting power again and can fly for another day. That is, so long as the crew ensures the Solar Impulse is not in a cloud bank at sunrise.
The only limit to the Solar Impulse’s flight time is the endurance of the human pilots. Making a multi-day airplane trip is a full time job, and this aircraft only has enough room for one occupant. The pilot has a bit of room for moving around, practicing yoga, lying down to snooze for 20 minutes at a go, eat foot, use the toilet, etc. Otherwise it is theoretically capable of flying perpetually.
Plants follow this pattern every day. They collect energy through photosynthesis all day, storing that energy so that the plant can survive through the night and/or through the winter. Our cities could adopt solar power and energy storage systems to do the same thing, collect energy throughout the day to power the city through the night. It’s relatively easy to do the same at an individual building. Doing this for a typical house requires a 10-20 kiloWatt-hour battery pack, a solar array, and some power electronics, all of which are available from several vendors off-the-shelf.
What’s next for the Solar Impulse is that Bertrand Piccard will fly from Cairo to Abu Dhabi. The team hasn’t selected the day. As they’ve done for the entire journey, the timing of the flight will depend on the weather. The Solar Impulse needs calm smooth air, and of course clear skies to catch the most sunlight.
COMING FROM SPAIN ACROSS THE MEDITERRANEAN, SOLAR IMPULSE 2 LANDED IN EGYPT AND IS NOW GETTING READY TO ATTEMPT THE LAST LEG OF THE ROUND-THE-WORLD SOLAR FLIGHT
Cairo, Egypt, 13 July 2016 – On its journey around the world, Solar Impulse 2 (Si2) – the solar airplane of Swiss pioneers Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg – landed in Egypt after a flight of two days and two nights (48 hours and 50 minutes) without fuel. This flight, which crossed the Mediterranean Sea from west to east and covered a distance of 3’745 km (2’327 miles) powered only by the sun, was the second to last leg of the attempt to achieve the first ever Round-The-World Solar Flight, the goal of which is to demonstrate how modern clean technologies can achieve the impossible.
At the controls of Si2, André Borschberg touched down at the Cairo International Airport, at 07:10 local time (UTC+2), after an iconic moment flying over the pyramids of Egypt completing a flight of two days and days nights – at a maximum altitude of 8’534 m (28’000 feet) and average speed of 76.70 km/h (47.66 mph) – that took off from Seville on 11 July at 6:20 am local time (UTC+2). This flight, connecting Europe to North Africa by crossing the Mediterranean without a drop of fuel, marks the penultimate leg of the first Round-The-World Solar Flight as well as the last flight of André Borschberg in the context of this pioneering adventure, before Bertrand Piccard will take the controls for the last leg to Abu Dhabi.
“This was an emotional and meaningful leg for me, being able to enjoy once more the incredible sensation of flying day and night thanks only to the energy of the sun and enjoying fully the present moment. But it also brought back many memories about the project: from the moment I heard about Bertrand’s incredible vision of an airplane with perpetual endurance, to the creativity, motivation and spirit demonstrated by the entire team and partners throughout this adventure,” said André Borschberg, Co-Founder and CEO, who flew the solar powered aircraft to Egypt.
“This landing in Cairo brings Solar Impulse back to the origin of my dream. Egypt is the country where I landed after my non-stop round the world balloon flight in 1999, and it’s precisely here that I had the idea of an airplane flying around the world on solar power. André and his team of engineers helped to translate my vision into reality, and I congratulate them for having built such a revolutionary airplane,” shared Bertrand Piccard, Initiator, Chairman and also Pilot of Si2.
Now in Cairo, Si2 and the Solar Impulse team are ideally positioned to attempt the last leg of the Round-The-World Solar Flight, when the weather is right, and reach Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates where the adventure started in March 2015. By flying around the world with no fuel, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg are demonstrating that today exploration and pioneering are no longer about conquering new territories, but about exploring new ways to have a better quality of life on Earth. Solar Impulse’s clean technologies can already be used not only in the air, but also on the ground, and have the potential to change individual habits, societies and markets in an unprecedented way.
Flight report: Leg 16 – Seville International Airport, Spain to Cairo International Airport, Egypt
Pilot: André Borschberg, CEO, Co-founder and Pilot of Solar Impulse
Take-off: 6:20 am local time Seville, Spain on 11 July 2016 (4:20 am UTC on 11 July 2016)
Landing: 7:10 am local time Cairo, Egypt on 13 July 2016 ( 5:10 am UTC on 13 July 2016)
Flight time: 48 hours and 50 minutes
Maximum altitude: 28’000 feet (8’534 m)
Average speed: 47.66 mph (76.70 km/h)
Flight distance covered: 3’745 km ( 2’327 mi)
About Solar Impulse
Swiss pioneers Bertrand Piccard – Initiator and Chairman – and André Borschberg – CEO and Co-Founder – are the pilots and driving force behind Solar Impulse, the first airplane able to fly day and night without a drop of fuel – propelled solely by the sun’s energy. Supported by Main Partners Solvay, Omega, Schindler, ABB, and Official Partners Google, Altran, Covestro, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions, Swisscom and Moët Hennessy, they are attempting the first Round-The-World Solar Flight with Solar Impulse 2 (Si2) – demonstrating that clean technologies can achieve the impossible.
Si2 is a concentration of clean technologies – a genuine flying laboratory. It is a single-seater aircraft made of carbon fiber that has a 72m / 236ft wingspan (larger than a Boeing 747) for a weight of 2300kg / 5100lb (the equivalent of an empty family car). The 17,248 solar cells built into the wing power the four batteries (38.5kWh per battery) that in turn power the four electric engines (13.5kW / 17.5hp each) and the propellers with renewable energy. The plane is therefore capable of saving a maximum amount of energy during the day and flying throughout the night on batteries. Si2 requires zero fuel and has virtually unlimited autonomy: theoretically, Si2 could fly forever and is only limited by the pilot’s sustainability.
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