Yesterday I happened to look up into a particularly clear blue sky to see the graceful gliding of a few seagulls. Whenever I see birds just floating and sliding around the sky like that, with their wings essentially motionless, I can’t help but wish I could know what that feels like. I sure can see what drew the Wright Brothers and others to want to find a way to take to the skies.
Imagine my amazement when I then heard about the Swiss-made Solar Impulse plane that has just now completed an historic flight, landing Thursday, July 9th 2010 in Switzerland. Flying gently, compared to jet airplanes etc., and at a relatively slow 70 kilometres an hour, this was the first time a manned solar powered plane has flown at night. It’s non-stop record-breaking flight was 26 hours, nine minutes and 33 seconds, proving that night flight in a solar plane is possible. It actually had more energy saved in its 12,000 solar battery cells when it landed than when it took off more than a full day earlier. Sounds too good to be true, and yet in this case, it is true.
After emerging victorious from the plane after the historic flight, pilot Andre Borschberg said, “So many things happened since yesterday…And, everything went very well. It is really unbelievable. So, we did better and more than what we expected to do and what we wanted to do. So, it is really a success.”
He went on to say, “It is so important because-that is the most important milestone of the project to demonstrate that it is feasible…It is feasible to fly day and night, which means that this technology can be used to save energy, to produce energy. That is exactly what we wanted to show.”
Seeing it in the air via video (see below), it has such a peaceful air about it, pardon the pun. So gentle and smooth up there, perpetual motion of a sort, flying up there with the sun, by the sun’s power. This propeller driven solar airplane is almost birdlike in its dimensions/weight ratio. It’s as wide as a jumbo jet but only weighs about 1.6 tonnes, or about the same as a mid-sized family car. It’s fascinating to see solar panels all over the wings and tail section. Kind of makes the solar panels seem like the plane’s version of bird feathers.
In describing the challenges they faced, Bertrand Piccard, team chief and co-founder of the solar airplane, said that “something impossible is difficult to achieve.” But they did. “It is time to use this success in the economical and in the political world to demonstrate even more that if we want a sustainable economy, if we want a sustainable world, if we want profitable companies, if we want to create jobs in the future we have to implement this clean tech.” Clean tech, what a great term.
It may be a while before this technology translates to passenger solar air travel etc., given current limitations like weight issues, and battery storage and size concerns, but it feels like we’re really witnessing an early step in moving beyond fossil fuels.
Sort of feels like the universe is letting us learn. We discover ancient decomposed dinosaurs turn into fuel that we can burn for energy, and as we continue to learn and hopefully understand a little too, we get to move on to the next step of cleaner and renewable energy sources. Fire is a lot simpler, whether it’s from wood or fuel. The Solar Impulse’s use and storage of solar power is more complicated. Let us be ready in time, because it feels like we’re cutting it kind of close.
Other posts on solar power in action: