In Switzerland, two pioneers are coming closer and closer to a flight around the world powered only by solar energy. This is the third part in an...
In Switzerland, two pioneers are coming closer and closer to a flight around the world powered only by solar energy.
This is the third part in an eight-part series on the future of transportation. New articles published every Monday.
It doesn't make good business sense, physics sense, or much of any kind of sense, to try to fly an airplane on solar power. Not yet. With the state of the technology, and how relatively young the solar sector still is, such an endeavor would be considered quixotic today-let alone in 2003, when Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, co-founders of Solar Impulse, announced they would design a solar-powered aircraft and fly it around the world. It would be a statement, they said, about our global dependence on fossil fuels and the untapped promise of burgeoning green technologies. The Swiss pilot-entrepreneurs were after "perpetual flight": a plane that could climb to 9,000 feet and fly on the sun's energy by day, then descend below cloud cover to lower altitudes, where it would cruise on stored battery power by night.
It was a long shot. And yet seven years of innovation later, the 70-person Solar Impulse team is nearing its goal. "We were intrigued by this notion of perpetual flight," said Borschberg when visited in September in Solar Impulse's massive hangar, situated smack in the middle of Düendorf Airfield, a Swiss military zone. "We wanted to be totally independent of any fuel." Forget hybrid planes, or the biofuels fixating most of the sustainable aviation sector today; Piccard and Borschberg are purists. "No fuel, no CO2, no pollution. It could fly almost forever, assuming good weather," Borschberg said of their invention.
By November of last year, test pilot Markus Scherdel-formerly of DLR German Aerospace, the NASA of Germany-was climbing into the cockpit of the completed prototype to taxi down the Dübendorf runway for the first time. Soon after that, Scherde was back in the cockpit, this time guiding the plane not just down the runway but up into the air for a series of successful "flea-hop" mini-flights over the tarmac. (You can watch a film of the event on YouTube.)