Ever since brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright soared into the history books as inventors of the first successful airplane 113 years ago, we’ve seen a century of innovation in the air. From the first transatlantic flight by Alcock and Brown in 1919 to Amelia Earhart’s solo flight from Honolulu to Oakland, and from the first flight of the Lockheed U-2 through to the maiden voyage of the Tupolev Tu-144 (the world’s first commercial supersonic transport aircraft), not a single decade has gone by without significant milestones being set for air travel.
While we’ve been taking to the skies and setting records for more than a century however, there’s one thing our planes have needed to use in large quantities: fossil fuels. From the earliest days of air travel through to today’s modern jet airliners, large quantities of kerosene or naphtha kerosene are burned in internal combustion or jet engines to give planes the power they need to soar skyward. And while in recent years we’ve seen major improvements in airplane technology that have dramatically slashed fuel use for both commercial and private planes alike, if you’ve wanted to travel long distance by plane you’ve had to face the fact that your flight will produce some sizeable emissions.
But in a short time, history will be made when Solar Impulse 2 touches down on the seventeenth and final leg of its round-the world trip in Abu Dhabi, completing a trip which has seen it travel more than 35,000 kilometers (21,747 miles) with absolutely zero emissions.
As the name might suggest, Solar Impulse 2 is a one hundred percent solar-powered aircraft built specifically for long-distance endurance travel. Fitted with a quartet of powerful electric motors slung under its impressive 236 foot wingspan, Solar Impulse 2 is fitted with 17,248 photovoltaic solar cells on its wings and fuselage and tailplane to provide a total peak output of 66 kilowatts of power. During the day, those panels harvest enough energy to power the plane along at a cruising speed of 56 miles per hour at an altitude of between 27,900 feet and 39,000 feet while simultaneously charging up four banks of 41 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery packs for night flight. When the sun sets on the horizon, those battery packs (one for each of the four electric motors) can sustain Solar Impulse 2‘s flight throughout the night at a cruising speed of 37 mph in ideal conditions.
Weighing just 2.3 tonnes, the Solar Impulse 2 might be lightweight and svelte but its cabin, just 134.2 cubic feet in size, is barely large enough for a single pilot and all of the advanced avionics needed to sustain autopilot flight at night, not to mention the on-board oxygen supply needed to keep the pilot alive in the non-pressurized cockpit.
Talking of the pilots, that duty has been shared so far by adventurer and psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard and professional engineer, pilot and CEO of Solar Impulse André Borschberg. Eager to promote the use of zero emission technologies, the duo, backed by an incredible team of engineers, scientists and ground crew, have slowly made their way around the world, taking it in turns to pilot Solar Impulse 2 on alternate legs ever since leaving Abu Dhabi in March 2015.
Together, the Solar Impulse 2 team have worked tirelessly to push not only themselves but the limits of the aircraft, proving that while fossil fuels have dominated the air for the past century, alternatives are possible.
Of course, the success of Solar Impulse 2 doesn’t mean we’ll all be taking electric airplanes around the world — at 19 hours for a transatlantic flight and with very little in the way of space for luggage it’s still impractical for commercial use — but it does open the possibility that at some point in the distant future, commercial electric airplanes will take to the skies.
And if you think we’re being a little impractical just remember this: it took more than 60 years for airplane technology to be affordable and capable enough for transatlantic flights than everyone could afford and enjoy. Fast forward 60 years from today, and we could easily see electric airplane technology evolved to a point where commercial electric flight is really possible.
For now however, we’d advise you to tune into the live stream of the final leg of Solar Impulse‘s flight. With touch down planned for midnight UTC — and Piccard actually a little early for his final approach, we think you won’t want to miss this piece of history being made.
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