Solar Impulse Inspires as it Blazes New Frontiers

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - As if there wasn't  enough to see here already at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the area was blessed with the appearance of a rare migrating bird, the Solar Impulse, resting up in preparation for a historic journey of truly epic proportions.
The two Swiss pilots, and founders of Solar Impulse, Bertrand Piccard, and Andre Borschberg are getting ready to set out to do what no one has ever done before—to fly around the world, covering 21,000 miles in a heavier than air craft, without using a single drop of fuel, relying entirely on the power of the sun. The plane will fly both day and night using energy stored in batteries to sustain power at night till the sun reappears each morning.
The plane, the Si2, is the second iteration of the Solar Impulse. Its wings, which extend 236 feet, longer than those of a Boeing 747, will be covered with 17,248 monocrystalline silicon solar cells that will provide the power. These cells were specifically developed for this craft, being extra-light, extra-thin (135 microns), highly efficient (23%) and capable of withstanding the necessary extremes in temperature that they will likely encounter.
While the plane is as large as a jumbo jet. it weighs little more than a family car (5,070 pounds), itself a miracle of space age materials. The four electric motors can produce a total of 70 HP, allowing the craft to putter along at a leisurely pace of about 20 miles per hour. This lean operation allows the craft to store enough energy to stay aloft through the night, meaning it could stay aloft indefinitely were it not for the fact that the pilots need to come down for food and drink.
Coming down for a pit stop, is in fact, the only way the pilots can change places since the quarters are so tight they can't switch with the cockpit closed. Each man, will typically be at the helm for 20 consecutive hours, the typical length of each leg.

The route, which was announced in a press conference yesterday, will head East from Abu Dhabi, in order to miss the monsoon season over India. It will makes its first stop in Muscat, Oman before crossing to India, where it will make stop in Ahmedabad and Varanasi. From there it will go to Mandaly, Myanmar before stopping twice in China-- in Chongqing and Nanjing. There, it will take an extended layover in preparation for the Pacific crossing, taking time for crew rest, aircraft maintenance, while waiting for the best weather window. They will make a stop in Hawaii, then continue on to Phoenix. There will be another stop somewhere in the Midwest, depending on conditions, mindful of tornadoes, before landing at New York's JFK airport. There, they will again rest in preparation for the crossing of the Atlantic. Once across, they will make a stop, either in Southern Europe or North Africa, before completing the circuit in Abu Dhabi some five months after setting out.
Also on hand for the announcement, beside the two pilots, were executives from a number of their sponsors including Solvay, ABB, Schindler, Google, Swiss Re, and Bayer. Walter Steinmann, the Swiss Secretary of State for Energy was also on hand for the event.
As to why this is being done, if the human inspiration weren't enough, there is the dramatic demonstration of the capability of renewable energy at a time when an urgent transition is necessary. Whether solar aviation ever becomes a commercial reality or not is really beside the point. The level of risk, hardship and sacrifice that these two men are willing to endure to make their point is clearly more than what any but the most impassioned individuals would undertake. Their reasons for doing so clearly extend beyond purely commercial motives.

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There are already spinoffs. Comparisons to the American space program are fair and appropriate. Several of their suppliers, who include Solvay, Schindler ABB, Bayer Materials Science, have stretched their capabilities to deliver materials and components that had to be invented to meet the demanding specification that require extreme levels of combined  light weight and high strength and well as new levels of efficiency throughout the electrical system.
Aerospace applications will be the most obvious. But there will be some surprises. Bayer Material developed a poly-carbonate materials package for the  windscreen and cockpit that is now being used in solar dryers on farms in the developing world. Solvent free coatings have been significantly advanced. Bayer has also developed a process to capture CO2 and turn it into lightweight foam insulation that can also be used in refrigerators.  This replaces an oil-based product.
Perhaps the spirit of this whole endeavor can be best summed up by smething Piccard said in response to a question form a woman in the audience.
"Aren't you afraid," she asked.
He paused only a moment before replying, "I am more frightened to live in a world that burns a million tons of carbon every hour, and is headed towards destruction, than I am to fly in a solar airplane."


Image credit: RP Siegel