Riddle me this…
What has a wider wingspan than a 747, weighs about the same as a large car and can fly seemingly forever without using a single drop of fuel?
The answer is the Swiss-made, solar-powered airplane called the Solar Impulse 2, which was unveiled to the world on April 9.
It’s the upgrade to the Solar Impulse 1, which flew across the United States in July 2013.
The Solar Impulse 2 is meant to become the first aircraft to fly around the world using only solar and battery power.
After flight tests in Switzerland this May, the around-the-world flight is scheduled to take place in March 2015, beginning from the United Arab Emirates.
What Keeps Solar Impulse 2 in the Sky?
The Solar Impulse 2 is truly an innovative aircraft.
Here’s how it works…
- Solar power is generated during the day from sunlight hitting the photovoltaic panel across its 236-foot wingspan. The panel consists of about 17,000 solar cells.
- This power will be stored (for night flying), in 2,077-pound lithium batteries. These batteries will make up most of the aircraft’s 5,000 pounds.
- Solar Impulse 2 will fly at 28,000 feet during the day, as it absorbs solar power. But in order to conserve energy at night, the aircraft will drop down to a cruising altitude of between 6,000 and 9,000 feet.
Granted, the one-passenger Solar Impulse 2 won’t exactly be making record time, considering that it’s running on four 17.5-horsepower electric motors.
With a maximum speed of 87 miles per hour, it’s slower than some people drive their cars.
Plus, it’s very heavy to control in turbulence. This means any takeoff or landing must be done in extremely calm conditions.
Slow or not, though, it’s safe to say that the Solar Impulse 2 is a game-changing innovation…
The Companies Behind the Scenes
The entire Solar Impulse project was founded about 12 years ago by two Swiss gentlemen, Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg. The work that went into the Solar Impulse 2 reflects the work of 80 technicians over that time frame.
But putting together the Solar Impulse 2 wasn’t solely the work of two Swiss entrepreneurs and their technical team.
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Behind the scenes, there were some 80 companies involved in the project. For instance…
- Bayer AG (BAYRY) is contributing the use of some of its nanotechnologies for the project. Plus, the German chemicals company developed a new insulating foam to protect the pilot (and the batteries) from the sub-zero temperatures.
- Belgian chemicals company, Solvay (SOL.F), invented specific electrolytes that allow the energy density of the batteries to be increased.
- Swiss company, Decision SA, is using carbon fibers that are lighter than any previously seen. In the past, Decision was involved in creating America’s Cup-winning ship, Alinghi.
- Communications with the control center are possible via a satellite communications system, weighing less than 11 pounds, by Swisscom AG ADR (SCMWY).
Bottom line: The around-the-world flight next year will truly be a landmark for aviation – and a true test of where cutting-edge renewable technologies stand today.
And “the chase” continues,