A couple of years ago I used to fly quite often to visit a project in Washington DC.. lots of 9 to 5, 50-minute trips from New York. I often wondered about the amount of fuel I was consuming and increasing my carbon foot print by leaps and bounds. I had no choice but to continue traveling – racking up frequent flyer miles was definitely an advantage but I would give it up if there was a more sustainable way of meeting the needs of the distant project differently.. can’t really do a field survey of a 250 year old building from a few hundred miles away.. yet!
I was happy to know that perhaps in my lifetime, people like me might have a better choice than I do. This week a prototype solar plane, Solar Impulse HB-SIA, took its major test flight out of Switzerland. Cnet reported that the plane climbed an altitude of 1,200 meters (3,937 feet) for 87 minutes. The small plane is designed to fly without fuel, has a wing span of an Airbus A340 but is extremely light at 1.7 tons, which is the weight of a family car. Its small weight and large wingspan make it hard to maneuver but pilot Marked Scherdel managed this with ‘flying’ colors – no pun intended. The wingspan needs to be as big as it is because it needs to house 12,000 solar panels which collect energy from the sun to power its 10-horsepower electric motors. It also charged the plane’s lithium polymer batteries which enable the plane to fly at night.
For this test flight the plane was flown on pre-charged batteries, but an upcoming flight will use solar panels. This summer a day and night flight is scheduled to see if the plane can remain in the air for 36 hours by using just solar power in the day and batteries at night. In 2012 the four to six day flight around the world is scheduled.
Cnet article quoted “We still have a long way to go until the night flights and an even longer way before flying round the world, but today, thanks to the extraordinary work of an entire team, an essential step towards achieving our vision has been taken,” said Solar Impulse Chairman and initiator Bertrand Piccard, in a statement. “Our future depends on our ability to convert rapidly to the use of renewable energies. Solar Impulse is intended to demonstrate what can be done already today by using these energies and applying new technologies that can save natural resources.”