Abu Dhabi, Dubai, 2015. The Solar Impulse 2, a plane attempting to fly around the world using only solar power, has begun its journey. The innovative plane, flown and financed by Swiss businessman and pilot Andre Borschberg and pilot Bertrand Piccard, is now more than one year into its quest to become the first solar-based aircraft to circumnavigate the Earth.
During this period, the Solar Impulse 2 had set a new world record, when it became the first solar aircraft ever to fly through the night, between two continents, and across the US.
Although the plane has pretty much proven its point, that solar power is a suitable energy source for airplanes, the question that arises among aviation experts is: was it all worth it, though?
How Does the Solar Impulse 2 Work?
The Solar Impulse 2 is a small, one-seat aircraft containing over 17,000 solar cells incorporated into a colossal 72-meter wingspan. By comparison, the Boeing 747’s wingspan is only 60 meter.
Pilots Borschbers and Piccard will take turns flying the experimental aircraft during the trip. They are helped by a huge team on the ground whose main task is to anticipate every possible scenario and to ensure that the plane is working properly.
What about Nighttime?
The Solar Impulse’s journey depends very much on the weather conditions. However, that doesn’t mean that the craft can’t fly during cloudy days or nighttime. During the day, the solar cells recharge the aircraft’s lithium batteries, allowing the Solar Impulse 2 to fly at night. In fact, the Solar Impulse 2 was the first solar-based plane ever to fly during the night between two continents.
Is This the First Solar-Powered Aircraft?
The Solar Impulse 2 is definitely not the first solar-powered plane, but it’s the first attempting to fly around the world. In the 1970’s, AstroFlight, a US-based alternative energy company, built an innovative aircraft called the AstroFlight Sunrise. When it finally took off, the plane flew over a military reservation in California, becoming the world’s first solar-powered aircraft actually to fly.
Was the Solar Impulse 2 Really Worth It?
The whole purpose of the Solar Impulse 2 was to prove that solar power is a fitting energy resource that can fuel airplanes. However, some industry experts argue that the experimental plane managed only to prove the exact opposite.
The plane’s flight from Hawaii to California took over 62 hours, much more than it took Amelia Earhart 80 years ago when she first made the nonstop journey. Not only that the solar plane is slower and can carry far less payload than Amelia in 1930’s, but the cost of the plane is also astonishing. Sure, we’re talking about an innovative technology, but the total costs of the program are around $250 million, much more than Amelia’s investment in the revolutionary flight.
Another problem with the Solar Impulse 2 is the resources needed to fly and maintain the aircraft. After it had taken off from Abu Dhabi in March of 2015 and it flew over the Hawaii Islands, the plane had to be rebuilt due to the numerous problems with the batteries.
The trip is already one year into development and is expected to take a lot longer to complete than expected. So, the question arises: is this truly a one flight voyage or a series of long leg journeys?
Solar impulse enthusiasts will say that the program’s mission is to promote clean energy, and that’s an admirable goal. However, what the program has managed to highlight is just how far we are from solar power being an efficient energy source for aviation.
Will Standard Commercial Flight Be Solar-Powered Some Day?
The Solar Impulse 2’ flight around the world is possible because the airplane is very light. The technology isn’t that advanced yet to power big commercial planes. Even if the aircraft were covered with today’s most powerful solar planes, it still wouldn’t be enough to power the plane.
The Solar Impulse 2 is, without a doubt, a big step towards the development of sustainable aviation fuels. Managing to create an aircraft with enough solar-power capacity to allow it to fly both day and night is a monumental achievement. However, we still have a lot of work before we can even begin dreaming about solar-powered commercial planes.