In 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first powered airplane on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, flying 120 feet over the course of 12 seconds. Now another possible breakthrough in aviation is on the horizon in North Carolina.
According to Greek mythology, Icarus met his downfall by flying too close to the sun when the heat melted his wax and feather wings. But Icarus didn’t have the Solar Impulse.
Solar Impulse is a Swiss long-range solar-powered aircraft project led by Swiss psychiatrist and aeronaut Bertrand Piccard and Swiss businessman André Borschberg.
Utilizing 17,000 solar cells powering four electric motors, the hope is that the Solar Impulse could one day travel around the world using only power from the sun.
One of the project’s main partners is ABB, whose North American headquarters are on North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus.
Up until recently, ABB focused its efforts on standard projects like integrating renewable energy into power grids. But the Solar Impulse could send the message that solar power is capable of much more.
“This is an effort to bring the technology to the people, make the, aware of solar power,” said Bob Stojanovi, the director of solar power for ABB North America. “We bring the sun to the socket.”
A plane like a Boeing 747 uses 5 gallons of fuel per mile, meaning a 10-hour flight requires about 36,000 gallons.
“Even on conventional fuel, it’s always been a challenge,” Stojanovi said. “To prove you can do it with solar technology is quite a statement.”
The Solar Impulse is the only airplane of perpetual endurance, able to fly day and night on solar power without a drop of fuel. Any excess power generated by the sun is stored to keep the plan flying at night or in cloudy conditions.
The big difference between the Solar Impulse and a conventional airplane is that a Boeing 747 can fit around 500 people. The Solar Impulse has room for only one.
The group has been working on the Solar Impulse for 12 years; and in 2013, they successfully flew from Phoenix to New York.
That’s just the start, ABB says.
“Showing that it can be down will make people realize the potential to use solar power in every day lives,” Stojanovi said. “We at ABB are going to be watching it very closely.”
Piccard and Borschberg will attempt the first around-the-world solar flight in 2015.
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