Solar plane shows future of zero aviation emissions

While airline companies and governments dither over how and by how much, to try and cut emissions from aviation, one man is showing the way to a future of zero emissions from air flight.

Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard is constructing a solar-powered plane to fly around the world. His aim is to support sustainable development by demonstrating what renewable energy and new technologies can achieve.

“Solar Impulse will promote the idea of a new aviation era using cleaner planes powered by the almost infinite energy of the sun, rather than the dirty, finite reserves of fossil fuels,” said Piccard.

Supported by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Technology Transfer Programme and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, those involved are aware that, in its present design, the craft will not be able to carry many passengers.

However, they hope it can raise awareness about the technologies that can make sustainable development possible.

“The sun is the primary source of energy for our satellites as well as for Piccard’s plane,” said Pierre Brisson, Head of ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme. “With the European space industry we have developed some of the most efficient solar cells, intelligent energy management systems and resourceful storage systems.”

“We will make this expertise available, together with our advanced technologies, to support Piccard’s effort to demonstrate the potential of sustainable development.”

The design of the plane is similar to that of a glider with wide wings and a thin light body. Its wingspan is as wide as the new giant A380 airbus – 80 metres across – in order to capture maximum sunlight. However, it will weigh just two tonnes.

The idea is to capture, store and use about 8 hours of sunlight in each 24 hour period. During the daytime the plane must not only obtain enough energy to fly, but also store enough in its batteries to keep its electric motor running and the plane aloft throughout the night.

During the day the plane will climb to a height of 10,000 metres then, during the night, will glide back to 3,000 metres. It should have a top speed of 100km/h.

The conceptual design is now in progress and a model of the plane was shown at the June Le Bourget air show.

On its round the world flight, planned for 2010, the plane will be flown in shifts by three different pilots.

By David Hopkins

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