Celebrating Jules Verne: around the world with a solar airplane

July 8, 2005

Brussels, 07 Jul 2005

Four years after achieving the first non-stop round the world balloon flight, pioneers Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones have teamed together again for a spectacular human and technological challenge, as they build a solar-powered aircraft, named Solar Impulse, to fly around the world.

This revolutionary plane will be capable of taking off under its own power and flying day and night without fuel or harmful residues from exhaust pollution. The aim of the adventure is to support sustainable development by demonstrating what renewable energy and new technologies can achieve.

More than 60 specialists, under the direction of engineer André Borschberg, are involved in the realisation of the initial project. The European Space Agency (ESA) is participating by making available European space technologies and expertise through its technology transfer programme. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne is the 'Official Scientific Advisor' for the project.

The design of Piccard's plane is similar to that of a glider with wide wings and a thin light body. To capture sufficient sunlight the ultra-light aircraft will be as wide as the new giant airbus A380, with wings measuring 80 metres across. However, compared to the A380's 560 tonnes, the plane will be as light as a car, with an approximate weight of just two tonnes.

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

The battery reserves will not be sufficient by themselves. During the day the plane will take advantage of peak sunlight hours to climb up to 10,000 metres. Then, during the night, it will gradually glide back down to 3,000 metres. Its large wings will increase the solar energy collecting surface area and also reduce the sink rate as the plane glides through the night.

Energy will be harvested from the 250 m2 of single-crystal silicon solar cells covering the upper wings. In addition, researchers from EPFL are developing dye-sensitive photovoltaic cells for possible use on the wings' undersides, to capture diffuse and low-angle sunlight near dawn and dusk. The energy will power the two engines which will provide 40 HP of thrust giving a top speed of 100 km/h.

Based on its status as scientific experiment and vessel of exploration, Solar Impulse wants also to serve as a communication platform and help promoting sustainable development, by stimulating the interest and enthusiasm of the public for renewable energies.

'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,' says Bertrand Piccard.

Although in its present design the craft will never be able to carry many passengers, the promoters believe that Solar Impulse can spark awareness about the technologies that can make sustainable development possible.

Pierre Brisson, Head of ESA's technology transfer programme, explains 'the sun is the primary source of energy for our satellites as well as for Piccard's plane. With the European space industry we have developed some of the most efficient solar cells, intelligent energy management systems and resourceful storage systems.'

While preserving the environment and saving resources are already high on the agenda of the international political and business communities, issues such as energy security and the rising costs of fuel may serve to foster interest in the technological challenge that Solar Impulse represents.

The conceptual design is now in progress and a model of the plane was shown at the Paris airshow in June. For the plane to be ready for flight in 2010 the following schedule must be kept:
- 2006-2007: detailed design and assembly of the plane
- 2008: first test flights and night flights
- 2009: solar flights of several days' duration
- 2010 round-the-world flight .

The round the world trip will take place in five stages, each of which will last three to five days. It will fly from west to east and between 10° and 30° north of the Equator to take advantage of the prevailing winds and sunlight.

For further information, please consult the following web address: http://www.solar-impulse.com/

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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