With its huge wingspan equal to that of an Airbus A340 and its weight that of an average car, the Solar Impulse prototype presents physical and aerodynamic features never seen before in an aircraft.
Carbon fiber structure, propulsion chain, flight instrumentation, everything has been designed to save energy, to resist the hostile conditions facing an airplane, and pilot, at high altitudes and to marry weight restraints with the required strength.
The Solar Impulse uses no fuel. At midday, each square meter of land surface receives, in the form of light energy, the equivalent of 1000 watts, or 1.3 horsepower of light power. Over 24 hours, this sun energy averages out at just 250W/m². With 200m² of photovoltaic cells and a 12 % total efficiency of the propulsion chain, the plane’s motors achieve an average power of 8 HP or 6kW.
That’s roughly the amount of power the Wright brothers had available to them in 1903 when they made their first powered flight. With that energy optimized from the solar panel to the propeller Solar Impulse has managed to fly both day and night without fuel.
Currently, the Solar Impulse has broken five world records, those being absolute height: 9235 m (30300 ft), height gain: 8744 m (28690 ft), duration: 26 hours, 10 minutes, 19 seconds, free distance along a course: 1116 km (693.5 miles), and straight distance, pre-declared waypoints: 1099.3 km (683 miles). The 12,000 or so photovoltaic cells of 145 micron monocrystalline silicon combine lightness and efficiency.
Aviation must clearly change to survive! Given the constant rise in the price of kerosene and CO2 taxes it is obvious that, unlike Solar Impulse, airliners’ engines are not about to start functioning without fuel.
The solar airplane provokes discussions amongst the highest political and economic authorities about technological solutions currently available to help them achieve the world’s agreed CO2 reduction targets.
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