On Saturday, the “Solar Impulse” experimental airplane lifted the potential for solar energy technology to new heights. The plane touched down at New York’s JFK International Airport, marking the completion of an unprecedented 5,650km journey over the United States. Known as the ‘Across America’ project, the Solar Impulse team noted that, “[this is] the first time a plane capable of flying day and night – powered exclusively by solar energy – has crossed the USA from West to East coast, without using a single drop of fuel.”
Swiss scientists Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard piloted the 3,500lb glider from San Francisco to New York, making brief pit stops in Phoenix, Dallas, and St. Louis. Each leg took more than 20 hours, and required intricate planning and piloting prowess. Along the way, the Swiss duo set the record for the longest continuous unfueled flight in human history, from Phoenix to Dallas, spanning a remarkable 958 miles.
Sporting nearly 12,000 individual solar cells across its 208 foot wingspan, Solar Impulse is the most powerful non-fuel aircraft in the world. Once charged, the 880 pound lithium-ion battery turns on for night flying, and is able to drive the four carbon-fiber propellers for hours. Technically, without the limitations of a human pilot, the Solar Impulse could fly forever.
Testing such a unique machine has certainly sent a worldwide message that the sky is quite literally the limit for solar power. "Flying coast-to-coast has always been a mythical milestone full of challenges for aviation pioneers. During this journey, we had to find solutions for a lot of unforeseen situations, which obliged us to develop new skills and strategies. In doing so, we also pushed the boundaries of clean technologies and renewable energies to unprecedented levels," said Piccard in an interview with Wired Magazine.
Borschberg and Piccard say that “all the technology exists” to make large scale solar travel very real. “Solar Impulse is really a pioneering adventure,” Piccard noted, “we open new doors.” As developments like these continue, consumer-based solar travel is indeed already on the horizon.
Where non-renewable fuel sources may try to push the limits of capability – solar energy is swiftly redefining them.