Could solar powered planes be the future of air travel?


An airplane solely powered by energy from the sun has just completed an around the world trip, but just how practical is solar powered air travel?

The Solar Impulse 2 completed the first round-the-world flight by a solar-powered aircraft today. The aim behind the journey was to raise awareness about the possibilities of clean energy.

The company behind Solar Impulse 2 hope that this journey will bring attention to the fact that steps toward clean energy can be made. 

"Public attention must be drawn towards the changes necessary to ensure our planet’s energy and ecological future."

The aircraft flew 40'000km in total and the trip took just over 16 months to complete.

Clean energy is of course ideal but would it work for day to day commercial flights?

How it works:

The wings of the Solar Impulse aircraft are wider than those of a Boeing 747 and hold 17,000 solar cells that power propellers and charge batteries. The plane stores energy during the day to run on at night.

However the Solar Impulse 2 is a single-seated aircraft and is far thinner than a standard commercial airplane.

Solar powered flight has come a long way since the first man-carrying solar powered flight was made in 1979. The Mauro Solar Riser was built by Larry Mauro and was based on a hang glider model.


Could it work commercially?

Although these aircraft can in theory stay in the air indefinitely the record for manned aircraft, is 26 hours, 10 minutes and 19 seconds, held by the Swiss aircraft Solar Impulse.

While the Solar Impulse and many other solar powered experimental aircraft are often larger than a standard airplane they are also much lighter. In order for solar powered planes to work for day to day consumer travel their capacity needs to increase to support much more weight.

This would require a large investment to develop the technology. However running and maintaining a solar powered aircraft is far cheaper than using fuel since solar energy is abundant and infinitely renewable. 

The future of Solar Impulse and clean energy

The company behind the historical round the world flight said that they hope to see a future where clean energy is fully utilised.

"Our ambition for Solar Impulse is for the worlds of exploration and innovation to make a contribution to the cause of renewable energies. We want to demonstrate the importance of clean technologies for sustainable development; and to place dreams and emotions back at the heart of scientific adventure.

Bertrand Piccard, one of the Solar Impusle 2 pilots, said that there needs to be a greater emphasis on the importance of renewable energy in order for wide scale solar powered flight to become a reality.

"The problem with our society is that, despite all the grand talk about sustainable development, we are a long way from making use of the clean technologies that are already available to us. Those solutions bring opportunities to create jobs, make profit, sustain the growth of the industry, and at the same time protect the environment."

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, the pilots of the Solar Impulse 2 plane, celebrate in Abu Dhabi. Picture by: Adam Schreck / AP/Press Association Images

Although Solar Impulse has not been announced yet what they plan to do in the future, it is likely that this trip will have a positive impact on the development of clean technologies.

Bertrand Piccard concluded:

"If an airplane has succeeded to fly day and night without fuel, then we can power our world on clean energy."

Aine Clerkin, 

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