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Will solar-powered planes make solar energy a reality?
by Ryan Roff on July 7, 2010
It may not be solving the impossible or ending the dependency on fossil fuel, but a plane, able to propel itself through the night on solar energy, is a monumental leap towards motorized sustainability. The question is, what exactly does it mean for solar energy and more specifically, what does it mean for solar-powered motors?
The Solar Impulse, sponsored by Germany's Deutsche Bank AG, is a solar-powered plane engineered to be both lightweight and aerodynamic. Its 12,000 solar cells are specially placed and designed to generate enough energy to power the plane not only during the day, but also at night. In other words, its got enough energy stored in the battery from the day's sunlight to make it through the high skies at night.
It is not the first time the plane has taken off using solar energy. In December, the Solar Impulse lifted off, reached nearly 1200 feet, and then landed, all in about 28 seconds. In April, the Solar Impulse soared for about an hour and half, making bank turns and slip maneuvers, and finally successfully landing at a military airport in Switzerland.
Both flights signified one very important reality: the continued emergence of renewable energy sources powerful enough to fly a plane.
This most recent trip, however, signifies much more than just the capability of solar panels to power a plane. This trip signifies technology's ability to sustain energy, in battery form, generated by the sun's rays.
Sure, its not going to mean commercial-grade planes flying around on solar power, but it may tip the scales a bit and make believers in solar energy.
The Solar Impulse uses the length of its wingspan (63,40 m) to store more than 10,000 solar cells with the remaining cells stored on the horizontal stabilizer. Over a 24 hour period, the solar cells average about 250W/m², and considering the average power needed to motor the plane is 8HP or 6kW, the Solar Impulse has the capabilities to make it through the entire day and night without fuel.
The message the Solar Impulse is sending is very tangible and very clear: one of the more powerful, innovative, technological advancements of the 20th century, now, more than 100 years later, has the ability to fly carbon free on renewable energy.
The next step step is a flight around the world, which is the logical next step for the Solar Impulse.