Swiss Aviators Unveil Plane Capable of Endless Solar-powered Flight


By Arman Kazemi

April 17, 2014

How would you offset the carbon footprint of flying from San Francisco to New York, a flight that would consume 13,000 gallons of fuel on an average Boeing 747? What about from Switzerland to Morocco and back?

What if you could make these trips without burning a single drop of oil?

In 2013, the Swiss-born André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard did just that.

Last year, Solar Impulse, the company they helm, took to flight a state-of-the-art aeronautics laboratory, propelled with nothing but solar energy.

The aircraft flew from Europe to Africa and crossed the United States to demonstrate the potential of clean-energy technologies in the modern world, breaking several aviation records along the way.

But for all the publicity it received, Solar Impulse 1 was just a prototype.

From the time they launched the company some 12 years ago, Borschberg and Piccard’s goal was to showcase the real-world potentials of renewable energy by designing a plane capable of transiting the globe on nothing but sunlight.

Their aim, according to Piccard, was simply to increase the sex appeal of these technologies for the general public.

Last Wednesday, the duo came one step closer to their dream when they unveiled the second generation Solar Impulse, the first aircraft with the technological potential to fly forever.

Solar Impulse 2 has an increased wingspan of 72 metres, longer than that of the 747, and is decked out with 17,248 solar panels. Weighing just over 5,000 pounds, roughly the same as a family-sized car, the Solar Impulse 2 is also a feat of mathematical engineering.

Its designers went to huge lengths to ensure the aircraft’s optimal energy efficiency. They shaved weight off the structure gram by gram, even covering the plane’s surface with sheets of carbon fibre more than three times lighter than the average printer-grade paper.

As Borschberg says, the only thing holding the plane back now may be the biological inefficiency of its pilots.

“We have a sustainable airplane in terms of energy,” he told the Associated Press. “We need to develop a sustainable pilot now.”

When finally ready for its transcontinental voyage this time next year, the message Borschberg and Piccard hope to deliver isn’t directed at the aviation industry so much as the people responsible for creating energy policy.

When asked about the hazard of manning a non-stop solar flight for days across the world’s oceans, Piccard says the real danger lies in doing nothing to promote the transformative power of these energies in the first place.

“To be really honest, I am very afraid of living in a world that burns one million tons of oil every hour,” he told a CNN reporter. “I am much less afraid to fly in a solar-powered airplane, because solar power is one of the solutions for the future.”