Solar Impulse 2: Will Solar Powered Aircrafts Be A Reality Soon?

Solar Impulse 2

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

“If you just make a press conference for clean technologies, nobody will listen,” said Bertrand Piccard, the man who flew the solar powered aircraft across the globe. “But when you fly around the world with no fuel, people say, ‘Wow.’”

With 87,000 followers on Twitter, his trip has surely got noticed. A few months back, Piccard had flown the aircraft across the Pacific. Last week, he completed the first zero fuel trans-Atlantic flight. The journey from New York to Seville, Spain took 3 days.

Will Solar Powered Flights Become A Reality Soon?

“Today we do not have the technology for a [commercial] solar airplane,” says Piccard. “Nevertheless, it will happen.”

The Solar Impulse 2 is a specially designed single seater aircraft made of light weight materials like carbon-fibre. It weighs as much as a standard car, but has a wingspan of 72 meters, similar to that of a Boeing 747. There are 17000 photovoltaic cells on top that power the motors and the batteries. The cabin is bare bones – not air conditioned and unpressurized.

The aircraft flies around 50 kmph, which is barely 5 percent of a regular aircraft. It can fly faster but at the cost of energy, and weight (being light weight) is also highly dependent on weather conditions. However, these specifications are nowhere close to a commercial aircraft. Increase in energy densities of both solar cells and lithium batteries need to happen for a small commercial grade solar powered aircraft. Solar powered electric cars that have a 200 mile range would require an area of ten times a normal car roof for the panels to be set in.

What can be expected now is solar powered drones and other unmanned aerial devices. The Solar Impulse 2 can theoretically stay airborne perpetually. So, a solar powered drone based on the current technology would help reduce pollution and eliminate the necessity of grounding the device to refuel. Solar grids are still the best option in making greener transportations, such as having a solar plant off the site that provides electricity to metro rail and electric cars. Commercial aircrafts have a long way to become fully electric.

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