By Ashlyn White, Policy Intern
|Source: Port Authority of New York & New Jersey|
Pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg are currently on the trip of a lifetime as they attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a one-of-a-kind plane of their own design. While journeys around the world have been done before, this particular journey marks the first time anyone has attempted to travel around the world in a solar powered airplane.
Frustrated by the perceived lack of effort to use the sustainable technologies available at the time, Piccard and his team at Solar Impulse began the solar aircraft project over a decade ago. After developing many solar plane prototypes capable of making shorter flights, Solar Impulse created the Solar Impulse 2 (Si2), which is the plane Piccard and Borschberg are currently using. The one-man aircraft has a wingspan greater than that of a Boeing 747 and is made of lightweight and durable carbon fiber. The plane is powered by four electric engines, which, in turn, are powered by more than 17,000 solar cells. While Solar Impulse is not the first group to develop a solar aircraft, the Si2 project has taken the concept further than other attempts by creating an aircraft capable of storing solar energy in rechargeable lithium ion batteries and flying around the clock for days and nights at a time. The plane began its journey in Abu Dhabi last spring and has since traveled across Asia in short trips, across the Pacific Ocean (marking the first time a solar plane has crossed an ocean) in a five-day non-stop trip, and across the United States. It is currently on its way across the Atlantic Ocean in what is predicted to be the toughest leg of the journey.
While adventure was certainly a factor in deciding to create this plane and take this trip, Piccard’s main goal in investing in the development of solar-powered air technology was to prove that air travel could be done in a more sustainable way. “What I’d like to show with my team is that clean technology today is showing incredible goals,” he said in an interview with CNN. “You can fly now longer without fuel than with fuel, and you fly with the force of nature, you fly with the force of the sun.” Piccard believes that the gap between environmental and business interests can be bridged by the investment and development of renewable energy technologies, because of these technologies’ potential for growth and profit while also reducing the use of polluting fossil fuels. Piccard essentially is arguing that disagreements between environmental and business groups would dissipate if they could realize that their goals can both be served by making renewable energy technology a key part of everyday life. “We should not try to force the population to follow the path outlined at Rio or Kyoto against its will, but let us give priority to those who invent or use new technologies that respect the environment,” Piccard said in 2004. “Then real evidence can be produced that protecting the environment is profitable.”
While this flight shows what is possible in air travel and solar power, it also exposes some of the problems that will need to be further addressed before this technology can be fully deployed. While all planes are susceptible to bad weather, Si2 is particularly sensitive. The plane is lightweight (about as heavy as a car) and only travels at speeds of approximately 25 to 55 miles per hour, depending on altitude. The combination of low weight and speed means that Si2 requires very specific weather conditions so it can fly high enough to gather sufficient sunlight. This need for optimal weather stranded the plane in Nagoya, Japan for a month while the crew waited for a window in which it could safely cross the Pacific. Later, serious overheating problems with the batteries caused by excessive insulation and the five day non-stop flight from Japan to Hawai’i grounded the team for nine months so that necessary repairs and changes could be made while also waiting for good weather. What was originally intended to be a six-month trip has turned into 15-month-plus affair, and the team still has a long way to go.
Regardless of these challenges, the flight has inspired a sense of adventure and innovation. Jean Verne, the great grandson of author Jules Verne (who wrote Around the World in 80 Days), said “A Jules Verne dream of today is the urge to explore the unknown and the force to do good, which must continue to inspire human beings. Take your time, be patient and determined, wrote my great grandfather Jules Verne, for everything great that has ever been achieved in the world, is the result of exaggerated ambitions. And it is this spirit that Bertrand Piccard symbolizes best in this project, which is ambitious but of universal benefit to mankind.”
While Piccard and Borschberg still have a ways to go before they complete their incredible journey, they have already achieved their goal of demonstrating the far-reaching capabilities of solar power and have left us wondering, “What else is possible?”