Solar Impulse 2

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The dream, finally realised

In Total World Energy’s August issue we covered the incredible story of Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg’s Solar Impulse project and the 10 year build up to the world’s first circumnavigation of the globe by an aircraft powered solely by the sun. We revisit this story now in our April issue, as the team are finally realising their dream and embarking on that record-making flight…

Some readers may recall that we first covered the Solar Impulse team and their incredible journey back in August, 2014 as they were making preparations for the world’s first round the globe flight using no fuel.

We are now revisiting the story of Bertrand Piccard, Swiss doctor, psychiatrist, aeronaut and explorer André Borschberg, engineer and fighter pilot. They have finally seen the realisation of a dream that has been over ten years in the making, embarking on the record-breaking flight earlier this month on the 9th March.

The concept at the heart of Solar Impulse – creating a solar-powered aircraft that could fly around the globe without a drop of fuel – first came to Bertrand Piccard in 1999 following his record-breaking round-the-world balloon flight with Brian Jones.

But, you could say that the vision that birthed this dream started many years before Piccard was born, with grandfather and visionary August Piccard.

Bertrand Piccard’s grandfather, August, graces the history books as the scientist behind the first balloon ascent into the stratosphere in 1931, asserting on his return that “the question facing us today is not so much whether a man will be able to go even further and people other planets, but how to organise ourselves so as to make life on Earth more and more worthy of living.”

It is easy to see where Bertrand Piccard may have inherited his passion for pushing the boundaries of what is possible furthering research in to renewable solutions for the modern world with such a legacy to follow. Piccard is quoted on the Solar Impulse website, summing up that today’s innovations “will need to consist much more of preserving, if not improving, the quality of life on our planet.

“How do we reconcile economic and ecological interests and promote the use of new technologies to save energy and create new power sources? Solar Impulse is a symbol of this mind-set.”

In our August article we covered the journey, from concept to realisation, that has led Solar Impulse SA to where is today. The Solar Impulse 2 was unveiled in April 2014 and embarked on its first test flight a few months later in June, but it is the lessons learned with the prototype, Solar Impulse 1 that have allowed Piccard and Borschberg and their 80-strong team to reach their goal.

The Solar Impulse 1 embarked on its first test flight in 2009 and went on over the next few years to achieve success after success, attaining a total eight of world records including: longest manned solar-powered flight, at 26 hours, first inter-continental flight in a solar-powered plane and greatest distance covered in a manned solar-powered aeroplane.

The Solar Impulse 2, an upgrade of the first prototype, has 17,248 solar cells covering the plane and rechargeable lithium batteries that store up power for night-time flying.

With a wingspan of 72 meters, larger than that of a Boeing 747, and weighing no more than the average motor car, the Solar Impulse 2 embarked on its round-the-world trip from Abu Dhabi and plans to make a total of 12 stops along the way, to enable pilot changes and local events for government and education.

The unbelievable 35,000 km trip is expected to end in late July or early August this year dependent on weather, and has its own unique challenges to overcome. The plane will have to fly for five consecutive days and nights to cover the Atlantic Ocean, which will be a record breaking achievement once completed.

The wingspan on the Solar Impulse 2 is also eight meters wider than that of the prototype and the plane is better able to combat bad weather than its predecessor – able to deal with partial cloud cover without affecting the energy needed to power the plane.

Piccard and Borschberg are currently only part-way through their trip, but have already achieved their first world record with this plane after crossing the Arabian Sea to Ahmedebad and completing the longest distance ever flown by a solar aeroplane in aviation history.

The collaboration involved in a project such as this is not only necessary – but key to its success. Borschberg explains that “a challenge like Solar Impulse can be met only by bringing together engineers from every background.

“This diversity, sought at every level, stimulates their creativity and provides their strength. It is from comparing and confronting their experiences that new and original solutions have emerged.”

The Solar Impulse mission is very much to carry a message – to challenge the world to find new ways of improving the quality of human life through sustainable, renewable, technologies. The importance of a pioneering spirit and a passion for the message behind the technology have led Piccard and Borschberg to realising a dream many wouldn’t have thought possible. More importantly, they have contributed further to a potentially emission-free future.

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