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Flying Lab: This Solar Plane is Breaking World Records

Solar Impulse, the world’s first solar airplane able to fly day and night, landed at Dallas-Fort Worth International airport last week. This was the second of five stopovers of this year’s Across America mission—a fully solar-powered crossing of the United States, west to east—meant to promote greater investment in clean technologies.

It’s at large airports like Dallas-Fort Worth that a future of solar-powered commercial flights sounds hard to believe. Imagine silent airports, no smell of exhaust, and lower flight costs for everyone. It’s a dream that seems far away, but then again, it’s the not unlike what the Wright Brothers experienced after their first flight in 1903. Only fifteen years later, British aviators Alcock and Brown accomplished the first crossing of the Atlantic. A few years after that, the first commercial airliners took flight transporting multiple passengers.

Solar Impulse should be seen as a flying laboratory and a symbol. Building the prototype airplane that is currently in the United States took seven years of research, analyses, and construction. A number of partners, specialized suppliers and engineers were involved in this process, pushing their expertise to the limit and heavily investing in the innovation of existing technologies. The idea of building a solar airplane was considered impossible from the onset. In fact, 90 percent of the airplane’s carbon-fiber parts were manufactured by a highly experienced sailboat and catamaran manufacturer, not a company that specializes in airplanes.

The greatest challenge in conceiving such a plane—with the wingspan of a Boeing 747, the weight of a small car and the power of a scooter—was finding a way to drastically reduce energy consumption while ensuring it could fly with a pilot onboard, solely using the energy accumulated and stored during the day.

Some of the technology on the solar plane has already been used in other industries, from a special foam used in high-end refrigerators to a new technique for batteries that is now used in portable electronics and the car industry. The carbon fiber utilized for the second-generation aircraft, currently under construction, is extremely light (25g/m²) and is being mass-produced for the first time. To appropriately monitor the pilot’s state of fatigue and vigilance, an electrocardiogram was designed to accurately measure the heartbeat curve. This device has been tested on patients after operations as a means to inform their physician real-time about any anomalies, and could potentially be used in cars to detect a driver's level of attention.

Solar Impulse’s first prototype aircraft exceeded expectations, proving greater resistance and efficiency than was initially imagined. Before this summer’s feat of crossing the United States, the solar airplane flew to France, Belgium, Spain, and Morocco from its home base in Switzerland. Apart from being a direct result of research and technological innovation, the solar plane is also an ambassador for renewable energies—a symbol calling for a revision of our society’s current lifestyle.

And that’s when the real question arises: if we can fly a airplane day and night across countries, and connect continents using only solar energy, why can't we also use solar more on the ground? Solar energy has been proven to be a good source for households’ electricity or water-heating needs. But that’s not all it can do—solar power is also used on satellites and in other technologies like a solar-powered elevator (built by Solar Impulse’s partner Schindler). With more research, it can be used in many more applications.

Although a clean tech solution for the aviation industry might not be feasible in the near future, a shift on the ground certainly is. This doesn’t, and shouldn’t, require a radical change in our current lifestyles. On the contrary, Solar Impulse simply wants to act as a vector for a contagious engagement in scientific research, technological innovation and energy savings—an inspiration for a cleaner generation and a trigger to take the risk of thinking outside the box. And who knows, maybe by investing more in scientific research now, we might even see (though we probably wouldn’t hear) the first solar-powered passenger airplane in our lifetimes.

Images courtesy of Solar Impulse

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