Solar Impulse: the plane that flies with the power of the sun.

On April 7th 2010 the first solar plane took flight. Read all about why this is such an important milestone. Illustrations by Thereza Rowe.

Written by Amelia Wells

solar impulse plane-thereza rowe
The Solar Impulse Plane. Illustration by Thereza Rowe.

Holiday season is steadily approaching; the time when adverts for faraway climes become ever more enticing and flight prices drop like environmentalists’ jaws when they see photos of tar sands. Heathrow and London City airports both have plans for expansion, whatever the cost to the surrounding area or local people. While they claim that more flights are beneficial to everybody, East Londoners face ever higher levels of respiratory diseases and noise pollution, and Sipson residents wonder when the property laws became irrelevant in the face of the aviation industry. With all this contention, isn’t it about time someone threw some renewable technology into the aero-space?

Enter Solar Impulse. A weird insect-looking plane which runs on solar power, with a wingspan to match that of an Airbus A340 (roughly 63 metres) and a bulbous cockpit hanging in the centre like a spider’s egg sac. Also known as the HB-SIA, the plane has been in development for the past six years, and last week, on April 7th, completed its first two hour test flight. The man behind this project is Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss ex-astronaut who was one of the first men to complete a non-stop round the world tour in a hot air balloon, an experience which led to the realisation for him of the need to live sustainably on the planet which we are currently destroying.

The Solar Impulse Plane. Illustration by Thereza Rowe.
Illustration by Thereza Rowe.

At the moment, Solar Impulse is more of an ambassador for renewable technologies than a useable mode of transport. Much of the technology used was developed solely for, and due to, this project. The wings are covered in photovoltaic cells which convert sunlight to power the propeller. One square metre of cells provides a consistent supply of 28 watts, the equivalent to a lightbulb, over a twenty-four hour period and the planes motor achieves no more than 6kW altogether – similar to the amount the Wright brothers had for their first powered flight of 200 metres. Due to this restriction on power the plans has been stripped of all extraneous weight. The wings are made from a composite carbon-fibre honeycomb around a sandwich shape with carbon ribs placed at intervals to create the aerodynamic shape. The speed is obviously also affected by this and the plane cruises at forty-six miles per hour. The cockpit is also big enough for only one pilot, and is unpressurised, which is fine for test flights which are used to optimise the balance between weight, energy consumption and manoeuvrability, but bigger things are planned for Solar Impulse.

The next steps are more test flights to perfect this balance, and then hopefully a night flight later in the year. This ability to store power and fly over night is what marks Solar Impulse out from the other solar powered plans currently in development. The ultimate goal for the project is to develop a second plane with a pressurised cabin, capable of making a round the world tour, stopping only for pilot changeovers.

The Solar Impulse Plane. Illustration by Thereza Rowe.
Illustration by Thereza Rowe.

The purpose of the Solar Impulse project is to challenge pre-conceived notions of what can be achieved with alternative renewable energies. If a plane can be solar powered, then surely other forms of transport can incorporate this technology into their energy supplies. It has also pushed people to develop more efficient forms of solar technology, advancing this field of research and encouraging new ways of thinking when it comes to uses of alternative energy sources. We know that oil and coal are not only running out, but are derived from the environment at great cost to the planet, and in an age where people are not willing to give up their conveniences no matter how many before and after photos of boreal forests in Alberta are waved in front of them, could solar planes be the saving grace of the aviation industry?

Well, we’re not going to see solar powered jump jets anytime soon, but consider that it was only sixty-six years between a 200 metre flight and two men on the moon. Solar Impulse already has two hours under its belt, who knows where it could progress to from here?

You can read about other similar projects in Amelia’s Anthology of Illustration, available from this very website!

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5 Responses to “Solar Impulse: the plane that flies with the power of the sun.”

  1. lesley says:

    so exciting! and love the illustrations!

  2. Abi says:

    Great to hear that this sort of technology is being tried out. Interesting article & the illustrations are brilliant!

  3. Will says:

    Hiya, just thought I should mention that impulse isn’t the first solar powered plane, there have been several since the 70’s:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_aircraft

    but great to see you covering stuff like this though! still an interesting article.

    thanks

  4. Amelia says:

    Hi Luke
    thanks for drawing this to our attention – I think there are ongoing attempts to crack this one, and that this is the latest!
    Amelia x

  5. Amelia says:

    Hi Will
    I did mention that there are other solar powered planes out there, and what marks the Impulse out from the crowd is that they are attempting to store power so that it can fly at night, making it the most advanced currently. I think all the different developers are egging each other on, rather, which can only be a positive thing for renewable energy technologies!
    Amelia

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