Solar plane crosses the Atlantic without a drop of fuel

Coming in to land over Seville 1

11 July 2016


15 June 1919 marked an auspicious day in the annals of aviation history, with British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown completing the world’s first non-stop transatlantic flight. Taking off from Newfoundland in a modified Vickers Vimy bomber, the team touched down 15 hours and 57 minutes later in Galway, Ireland. Almost 97 years to the day later, Bertrand Piccard successfully completed another world-first in transatlantic crossings, this time without using a single drop of fuel.

On 20 June 2016, Solar Impulse 2 took off from Kennedy Airport in New York, in an attempt at the world’s first electric, solar and zero-emission transatlantic flight. He successfully made landfall 3,383 nautical miles and a little over 71 hours later in Seville, Spain. More than just an aviation first, this was a first in the history of renewable energy.

Speaking before the flight, CEO, Co-Founder and pilot of Solar Impulse, André Borschberg said: “With this flight over the Atlantic, we are further demonstrating Bertrand’s vision that clean technologies work, and can be applied everywhere. We can now make our world more energy efficient. It’s not a question of technology anymore, it’s only a question of mindset: Solar Impulse is like a flying smart grid, and if we can make it work in an aeroplane, where we can’t cheat, we can make it work on the ground, in our cities, for our homes and for all applications.”

The flight itself is just one leg of an ambitious journey around the world, powered only by the energy of the sun, and piloted by co-founders Piccard and Borschberg. The team designed and built the single-seat aeroplane, capable of flying both day and night without stopping, to demonstrate the availability and capabilities of clean technologies.

In order to circumnavigate the world without any fuel at all, every part of the plane had to be engineered for maximum efficiency. The body of the plane is made up of lightweight carbon fibre, and to keep weight low, the cockpit houses just one pilot. Bertrand and Piccard must therefore switch places at each stop-over. During long haul flights, pilots can take only 20 minute cat-naps, doing yoga and other exercises to maintain blood-flow and stay alert.

The 72 metre long wings outstretch those of a Boeing 747, and are lined with 17,248 solar cells. These collect and convert 93% of the sunlight that hits them into electrical energy that is stored in four batteries, in turn powering four electric engines and propellers. The plane can travel at a cruising speed of between 45-55kmph, however its night-time flight speed is reduced to conserve power.

“From the beginning we knew the plane would require a large wingspan to reduce drag, and a large surface area to insert enough solar cells and produce sufficient energy, whilst, at the same time, have an ultra-light structure to save a maximum amount of energy and fly through the night on batteries. The aircraft structure uses the most advanced technologies and has stimulated scientific research in the fields of composite structures, lightweight materials, electric propulsion, and methods for managing and storing energy,” said Borschberg.

The round-the-world trip began on 9 March 2015 in Abu Dhabi, however during a continuous flight between Japan and Hawaii that lasted over 117 hours, the plane’s batteries were damaged, and Solar Impulse was grounded. The flight resumed in April 2016, and the team are expected to make their final leg from Seville to Abu Dhabi later this summer.

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