Plane Flies From Japan To Hawaii Without Carrying Any Fuel

Swiss aviators Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg are flying around the world in a plane using only solar power, and they have just completed the most challenging leg of the journey. The 4,480 mile trip over the Pacific Ocean required 117 hours and 52 minutes of flying time and broke records in both distance and duration of solar-powered flight.

Solar Impulse 2: this solar-powered plane is on a round-the-world journey to inspire the use of renewable energy technology. Image from Milko Vuille.Solar Impulse 2: this solar-powered plane is on a round-the-world journey to inspire the use of renewable energy technology. Image from Milko Vuille.

The record-breaking flight was piloted by Borschberg who faced numerous challenges related to both his own health and that of the plane. Five days confined to the cockpit of a very novel piece of machinery meant that developing a balance between remaining well-rested while keeping the vessel aloft was no small feat. During a typical day of flight, he rested eight times averaging between 5 and 20 minutes and consumed 5.2 lbs of food, 2.5 L of water, and 1 L of sports drink. However, the rewards are manifold and Borschberg described his feeling at the end of the trip as “exhilarated”. In particular, the pair have essentially proven that the dream of perpetual flight is in fact a reality.

The project, named Solar Impulse, has achieved regular recognition for increasingly ambitious flight plans since its inception in 2003. It is a privately financed venture with a mission to show how “pioneering spirit, innovation and clean technologies can change the world and to encourage people to save energy and promote the use of clean technologies globally”. The round-the-world flight serves not only as a demonstration of what we are already capable of achieving in transportation with current renewable energy technologies, but also to inspire the use of those same technologies in addressing many of the problems facing humanity at present. The team initiated a side campaign called Future Is Clean to advance this goal.

The plane relies primarily on lithium ion battery technology coupled with arrays of solar cells to power its flight. It has a wingspan on par with that of a Boeing 747, but a carbon fibre body means its weight is closer to that of a typical car. 17,000 solar cells blanket the wings and are able to power four engines. The cells are also able to charge the over 2000 pounds of batteries each day such that the plane is able to fly all night, making essentially limitless flight viable.

The next step of the journey will be from Hawaii to Phoenix. Though less gruelling than the cross just completed, it is still expected to take Piccard, who will take over as captain on this leg, upwards of four days.

While this technology, and what Piccard and Borschberg have achieved with it, is truly remarkable, it is not designed to be representative of the future of passenger aviation. First, the number of solar panels required to operate with the increased mass of multiple passengers would render the vessel quickly impractical. Second, the 43 mph cruising speed would be a tough sell to many potential clients. Few have five days to spend getting half way across the Pacific. The idea behind this project is to demonstrate how much can be accomplished with the renewable energy technology already available. The pilots hope to serve as inspiration for all the inventors out there looking to make our lifestyles a little more sustainable, and this record-breaking flight is a tremendous step toward that goal.

Via Science Daily and BBC News.