The sky’s the limit

After eighteen hours and 898km of strong headwinds,turbulence and even some backwards flying, Bertrand Piccard‘s plane landedsuccessfully in Madridwithout the aid of a single drop of fuel.

On Friday 6th July, the aptly-named Solar Impulsecompleted the returning leg of its first intercontinental flight, powered only bythe sun and with a 90-strong team of engineers, technicians and missioncontrollers behind it. But this huge achievement was not without itsdifficulties.

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As well as the unpredictable meteorological conditions whichcaused the flight to be postponed by three days, Piccard and his team were draggedback down to earth with many technical problems.  Jacques van Rijckevorsel, responsible forchemical group Solvay‘s involvement in the project, likened the plane to a”flying laboratory” last year and admitted the $100m project had been”extremely demanding”. Indeed, without the help of their partners includingSolvay and materials provider Bayer Material Science, Solar Impulse’s triumph wouldnot have been possible. Bayer Material Science’s researchers contributed ideason both lightweight construction and energy efficiency, while Solvay conductedcomputer-based simulation to predict the behaviour of these lightweightmaterials during flight.

The project commenced in 2003, when Swiss duo Piccard andAndré Borschberg envisioned a plane powered entirely by the sun. 11,628monocrystalline silicon cells, a hundred partners, nine years and two prototypeslater, their dreams have come true. The commercial-airline-sized prototypefirst took off in 2010, and since then has also flown up to twelve hours andthrough the night. But last week’s intercontinental success was the first ofits kind and will remain a milestone for the Solar Impulse project.

Despite their previous successes, the sky remains the limitfor Piccard and Borschberg. In 2013 Solar Impulse will attempt to break theround-the-world record in five legs of five days. And for these aviationpioneers, as well as saving energy and demonstrating solar power’s potential,they view their accomplishment as “a symbol that affects all of us”. As theproject’s website states, solar aeroplanes are unlikely to ever carry 300passengers. But Solar Impulse’s triumph shows us that a sustainable future forair travel may be on the horizon.

By Becky Wilson

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