Last year, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg became the first pilots to fly across America in a featherweight plane fueled only by the sun. The Swiss duo now plans to circumnavigate the world in a next-generation solar aircraft named the Solar Impulse 2. The March 2015 flight will start and finish in Abu Dhabi.
“We have chosen this location as being the best departure and return point for the round-the-world tour due to its climate, infrastructure and commitment to clean technologies,” Borschberg said in a press release.
“It’s a country that fits with our message,” added Piccard, “…an oil-producing country that invests a lot for renewable energy knowing that oil will not be forever. We don’t fight against oil — we just show that we can diversify and be more energy-efficient.”
The pair believes that oil should be used to produce new materials, not power transportation. To that end, a team of 80 technological partners spent over a decade developing new products to support the mission to prove the potential of clean energy. Masdar, the United Arab Emirates-owned renewable energy company is part of the mostly Swiss development crew.
Collaboration fostered creation of systems with far-reaching application: electrolytes that permit increased energy density on batteries, the lightest carbon fibers ever manufactured, and super thin insulation that allows refrigerators to have more internal space. The team is working to produce oxygen with solar energy (not yet available for this flight), and NASA helped create a product that makes urine drinkable. The plane itself could someday be deployed as a satellite replacement – a sustainable high-altitude, unmanned research platform outfitted with cameras, communication technology or scientific research equipment.
The 2-seat plane consists of a carbon-fiber and honeycomb sandwich frame; its 72 meter wingspan (longer than a Boeing 747!) holds 17,200 monocrystalline silicon solar cells that supply four electric 17.5 CV motors with enough stored energy to power the plane through the night. During daylight, the 2.3 ton plane ascends to 8,500 meters and descends to 1,500 meters at night to reduce energy consumption. The pilots expect 94% total efficiency flying between 36 km/h at sea level and 140 km/h at maximum altitude.
During their trip across the USA, the pilots flew up to 24 hours without stopping. Their world tour will need constant flight for up to 120 continuous hours due to ocean crossings; the men will trade-off shifts at the controls to stave off exhaustion. Pilots will use yoga, meditation and self-hypnosis to rest or stay alert as needed; techniques that include sleeping for no more than 20 minutes at a time a dozen times throughout the day. Medical specialists devised a personalized nutrition plan for each man and will offer support before and during the flight.
The trip will take about 25 days of flying over a period of four to five months, with stops in Asia, the USA and Southern Europe or North Africa before returning to Abu Dhabi, landing every five days to so that the pilots can switch places. Theoretically, the plane can fly forever through day and night due to its complex system of solar cells and lithium batteries.
The 3.8 cubic meter single-seat cockpit is unheated and unpressurized. It will contain oxygen supplies, food and survival equipment including parachutes and a life raft. Seats double as reclining berths and toilets. High-density, thermal insulation in the cockpit and specially engineered flight suits will protect the men from extreme temperatures ranging from -40°C to +40°C. Learn more about the project in the video clip, below.
“Our goal is to show that it is now possible to achieve things considered impossible without fossil fuels,” says Piccard. “In today’s world we have to cultivate the pioneering spirit to liberate oneself from those certainties and habits that hold us prisoner to old ways of doing and thinking.”
Track their progress on the Solar Impulse 2 blog – link here.