Some analysts have said that we are about to enter a golden age of solar technology, as the cost of solar electricity and installations becomes increasingly competitive with established fuel sources. But will we ever use solar power to fly? A team comprised of engineers and adventurers wants to build the first plane to circumnavigate the world solely on solar power.
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A tall order, to be sure, but solar-powered transportation has been gaining ground in recent years as solar cells become more efficient and batteries are engineered store more energy in less space. A solar-powered boat is currently sailing the world, and by 2014 the Solar Impulse team hopes to launch a plane that can fly by day or night solely on solar power.
Founded in 2003 by Bertrand Piccard (whose family inspired Jean-Luc Piccard of Star Trek fame) and Andre Borschberg, Solar Impulse has already successfully flown for an entire day-night cycle, staying airborne for over 26 hours. With a wing span of 200 feet, and a weight of just 4,000 pounds, the Solar Impulse is maximized for efficiency. The carbon fiber wings hold over 11,000 individual solar cells, and the cockpit measures just 35 cubic feet, enough space for only one pilot. The team envisions eventually building an airplane that can hold a load of people, but that day is still far off.
By 2014 however, they aim to circumnavigate the world in their aircraft using solely solar power. The amount of energy needed to get keep the plane off the ground is about the same as the Wright Brother’s original 1903 flyer. It probably won’t be much faster either, but perhaps one day solar power will be able to provide enough additional power to offset some of the energy from turbine engines.
Good idea, or just a silly stunt? You tell us.