Solar Powered Plane

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted April 2, 2013

Solar power is not the first thing people think of when considering airplanes, but creators Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard hope to challenge perceptions of solar potential.

Based in Switzerland, Solar Impulse is a project dedicated to developing a successful solar powered plane. The current model is called the HB-SIB, according to the Solar Impulse official website. Solar Impulse is a widespread undertaking that includes engineers, technicians, experts in aerospace and physics, and a variety of energy and tech companies that are lending support.

Solar Impulse FlightThe aim is not to move in on commercial airline territory, but to awaken minds and encourage people to engage in a deeper understanding of alternative energy sources. More than anything, the creators want to send a message of energy independence and inspire a break away from the reliance on fossil fuels.

The technical name of the new plane is version HB-SIB, and the project has been ongoing for the past ten years. There is no fuel source whatsoever – only the sheer power of the sun.

According to NPR, the wingspan of the solar plane matches that of a 747 Boeing airliner, but the entire mass of the plane has the same weight of your average vehicle. This is no luxury plane; every piece of machinery and outfitting is designed for safety and efficiency.

The plane is very light, allowing the wind to do much of the work in levying the plane. The team wanted the plane to fly over 24 hours, so it was fitted with lightweight carbon fiber as an outer frame.

Even the interior was stripped down to a mere skeletal frame to compensate for weight – so much so that the pilot’s seat is also a toilet.

Pilots can reach an altitude of 30,000 feet in the air to get the most out of an energy recharge. This will help pilots avoid unnecessary energy drains when the sun is down.

To demonstrate its ability to fly, the plane is expected to embark on a national tour on May 1st, with a launch point from NASA’s research center in Mountain View, California and stopping points in “Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, Nashville, Washington D.C., and New York,” according to CNET.

The final stopping point will be in New York’s Kennedy Airport in July. The goal of the campaign is to prove that the HB-SIB has enough power to travel across the country. If the national trip is successful, a world campaign is expected to take place in 2015, according to the project website.

Solar Flights

The first model plane – the HB-SIA – took flight in 2010 for a total of 87 minutes. The second test was from Switzerland to Belgium, which held a time span of 13 hours. The longest it has ever been in flight was a night flight that lasted a little over 26 hours.

You may think that such a plane would be dangerous during the night, but the solar panels rely on charged polymer lithium batteries so the plane can run when the sun is down, as reported by NPR. 12,000 solar cells make up the plane’s solar panels, which power the four 10-horsepower engines.

According to the project website, the cells are provided by SunPower Corp. (NASDAQ: SPWR) and are ordered in groups of 300. These 300-cell groups comprise the solar panels on each wing.

These cells are also a good way of keeping the panels lightweight instead of using conventional panels. The solar market may not have much room for this type of airplane, but the panel technology behind it has great potential in being harnessed as a lightweight energy source. The makers successfully demonstrated that solar panels can be molded for just about any type of energy need.

This airplane is important because it shows that solar has a larger role outside of the residential market. Green car manufacturers have made headway in integrating solar technology into electric cars, and the Solar Impulse plane proves that solar can be taken to new heights – literally.

The creators have no intention of competing with the airline industry, but Borschberg predicted that solar technology could merge with airline fuel consumption in approximately four decades, as reported by Forbes. This does not sound as far-fetched, since the airline industry has made progress in bio-fuels. Solar could contribute to fuel efficiency for commercial airplanes in the same way it does with greener cars.

Solar Flight Setbacks

The project sounds exciting, but there are some concerns that need to be addressed.

The Solar Impulse plane only flies at an average of 40 to 50 miles per hour. The plane only seats one pilot, which can be a problem during emergency situations in which two people would be ideal in avoiding catastrophe.

Pilots must also be careful in avoiding sharp turns; the plane can easily lose balance because of its light weight, NPR reports. The makers installed a system that vibrates the pilot’s arm in the event of unstable flight patterns, but there is no fool-proof plan to get the pilot out of harm’s way if the plane begins to tumble.

Above all, the plane relies too heavily on the sun for power, which can be detrimental in heavily clouded areas or during stormy fronts. If the plane hits cloudy patches in the sky, this could deter the plane’s recharge time – potentially rendering a pilot far behind his or her flight schedule. The slowness of the airplane also makes the craft more susceptible to storm damage.

The good news is that the model HB-SIB will have higher upgrades and more safety features than the HB-SIA. It remains to be seen if the problems associated with the current model will be fixed in the SIB version. And it is unknown if there will be future models beyond the SIA and SIB versions.

Will this plane have a place in the solar market?

Only the creators can answer that question, but they are using the plane as a symbol of future technology and solar power’s impact on the renewable energy sector. The airplane model itself is also a symbol – showing that only the sky is the limit when it comes to solar power.

What does it mean for the solar market?

Solar Impulse is an ingenious contraption, but its sole purpose is to heighten interest in renewable energy. The plane will surely gain attention from energy insiders, which may prompt more innovative ideas and inventions using solar technology.


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