Until now, no one has attempted to circumnavigate the globe using an aircraft that runs exclusively on solar power. Two entrepreneurs from Switzerland are changing that.
Over the next five months, André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard will circle the globe in the world’s first solar-powered plane that operates both day or night, rain or shine without an ounce of fuel. Backed by high-profile investors including Google’s Larry Page, the crew completed its fourth leg of the 21,748-mile journey this month.
In ideal conditions the aircraft can run for days on end without stoping. It’s the aircraft with just a few limitations: lightning or high winds.
The wing houses nearly 17,000 human hair-sized photovoltaic cells with the ability to generate energy even on overcast days. The custom-designed body weighs around 5,071 pounds, just slightly more than one SUV or two micro-compacts if you’re a Scion IQ owner like myself.
To withstand long-haul distances, the project required a great deal of investment. It took nearly $16 million and over a decade of research and design to create a solar airplane efficient enough for continuous trans-continental travel. The reason? Acquiring capital was an issue but more significantly, the technology did not exist yet. It had to be created.
You may be thinking: Wow, that’s a pretty impressive undertaking but what’s the payoff? To make history? To challenge negative perceptions about clean energy? Yes, but there are other benefits as well. Although Piccard hopes to push the boundaries of solar energy, the intention is to also apply lessons learned from the project to improve drone and satellite technology.
Twelve years ago, building an aircraft like this would not have been possible. Imagine what we can accomplish in the next twelve through advancements in photovoltaics, nanotechnology and storage capabilities. Clean tech is becoming more efficient, reliable and embedded into our daily lives. While we may not see a 300 passenger solar plane in our lifetime, the Solar Impulse 2 demonstrates that there is untapped potential on the horizon for emerging clean tech markets. It’s an exciting time to be alive.
Follow the flight here and join the conversation at #TheFutureIsClean.