The First Solar Powered Round-the-World Flight

The first solar powered round-the-world flight is an ambitious step towards decarbonising air travel.
Published: Tue 15 Apr 2014

When the Wright brothers took a shot flight at kitty hawk, no one would have imagined this to be the starting gun for an industry that is now one of the biggest culprits when it comes to emitting high carbon emission levels.

It also has the biggest impact on climate per distance traveled because it can lead to contrails and formation of cirrus clouds that have a strong climate impact, as well as ozone. Additionally the contrails created by airplanes are contributing more to global warming than all the carbon emissions that has been caused by the entire 108 years of aircraft travel.

These contrails have a strong effect on the climate and cause warming over much shorter periods of time than carbon emissions. This is according to a recent study, Global radiative forcing from contrail cirrus, published in Nature Climate Change by Dr. Ulrike Burkhardt and Dr. Bernd Karcher from the Institute for Atmospheric Physics at the German Aerospace Centre.

So perhaps this latest solar powered flight could be a kitty hawk moment for the decarbonization of flight.

Making air travel cleaner

Since putting an end to air travel is not a viable option in today’s world, companies and research centers have been looking at various options that will make air travel more environmentally friendly.

One such company, ABB, a leading power and automation technology group, has partnered with Solar Impulse, to develop an aircraft which will journey around the world on solar power alone. Take-off is set for 2015.

This is not Solar Impulse’s first attempt at solar-power air travel. The first-ever flight through the night with a solar airplane as well as record-breaking missions across Europe, the Mediterranean Sea and the US has brought worldwide attention to the Solar Impulse endeavor which has demonstrated the enormous potential of clean technologies.

The sun-powered airplane, used to fly across Europe, the Mediterranean Sea and the US, has a wingspan about the same size of that of a Boeing 747, i.e. 63.4 meters / 208 feet, and that weighed about 1,600 kilograms / 3,527 pounds. The plane has a total of 12,000 solar cells embedded in its wings, and these served to keep four 10hp electric motors up and running. The solar cells would also recharge several lithium batteries during daytime so that the plane would have enough power to fly after sunset.

Developing the new Solar Impulse 2

In preparation for the global circumnavigation, the Solar Impulse team had to develop a brand new solar-powered aircraft: Solar Impulse 2. This aircraft builds on its predecessor in a few important ways: It has a bigger wingspan, a bigger cockpit and uses lighter materials. Despite its enormous size – the plane has the wingspan of a 747 – Solar Impulse 2 is somehow insubstantial. The tops of its wings are made up of glued-together solar cells. Most of the rest of the plane is covered in a silvery plastic film.

The plane is a one-seater (the two pilots Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard will trade off legs on the round-the-world flight, with stops in several countries along the way). The plane has a top speed of 40 miles an hour. To squeeze the maximum efficiency out of the solar cells, the plane only weighs about as much as a SUV.

The aircraft has a carbon-fiber frame and is lightweight, with specially-formulated insulation. However, for the sake of maximum energy efficiency, the cabin is not pressurized or heated. Solar Impulse 2 is also more weatherproof than its predecessor, so the electronics can work in the rain.

Solar: The way forward (and upward!)

ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer says that they are convinced that by pioneering innovative technologies, the firm will be able to decouple economic growth from energy consumption and environmental impact. He continues to explain that the ABB’s goal is to improve the world by using energy more efficiently and at the same time, conserving natural resources.

While solar-powered travel is currently geared towards the daredevils of our world, the time will certainly come when commercial travelers won’t think twice about boarding a solar-powered aircraft.