Rhein on Energy and Climate

During May 2013 a solar-fuelled plane, piloted by two entrepreneurial Swiss citizens, is crossing the USA from California to New York, with a few stop-overs in major cities. It is an unprecedented event aiming to encourage policy makers and business to adopt sustainable energy solutions.

The SOLAR IMPULSE has been conceived by its two pilots, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, and developed with the support of dozens of engineers and technicians of the Technical University of Lausanne during the last 10 years.

The crossing of the USA serves as a test for an even more ambitious tour around the earth, scheduled for 2015 in an improved version equipped with a pressurised cabin for two pilots.

SOLAR IMPULSE weighs no more than a car. It is composed of specially developed super light carbon-composite material. Its wings stretch over 60 m, comparable to those of an Airbus 380; its cruising speed is about 70 km/h.

Thanks to its 12 000 photovoltaic cells and its rechargeable lithium polymer batteries it can fly by day and night at altitudes up to 10 000 m. This is a major progress compared to the remotely piloted solar-fueled planes developed and launched by NASA in 2008 for long-duration scientific flights.

The SOLAR IMPULSE has cost € 120 million to build, largely financed by more than 80 mostly European partners and sponsors, among them many big names of European business, from Omega, to Schindler, Swiss Re, Bayer and Deutsche Bank, who have found it worthwhile to be associated with this experiment of solar flying.

Because of technical constraints PV will never be able to power large commercial air craft. But it may very well give an impetus to amateur flying which may become much cheaper because of fuel costs solar.

The main merit of the transcontinental flight, however, is to have demonstrated a new application for PV power. So far we have used it for road signs, remote electricity generation and, recently, grid-connected power plants.

But nobody would have guessed 25 years ago that in 2013 a plane would be able to cross the United States by means of electric engines driven by PV cells.

60 years after Bell Laboratories have produced the first practical photovoltaic cell we should pay tribute to European imagination and technical curiosity for having developed its most advanced application so far.

Brussels 10.05. 2013 Eberhard Rhein

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