First Ever Solar-Powered Plane to Fly Across the US

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The Solar Impulse


The world's first solar-powered airplane




Challenging assumptions about solar technology


With the American public’s excitement for the prospects of solar power seemingly fading, two men have decided to do their best to recapture the nation’s imagination – by flying across the country in the world’s first solar-powered plane. The plane, known as The Solar Impulse, is the creation of Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard; the latter made news back in 1999, when he circumnavigated the world in a balloon and almost ran out of fuel. With that trip in mind, Piccard began to consider ways that he could make a similar trip without the restraints of fuel. 

To design and build an airplane to meet these specialized requirements proved to be a challenge for the duo, especially because the cross-country trip requires the plane to be able to fly at night. In order to incorporate as many solar cells on the wings as possible, the wingspan is much longer than the average airliner’s. The wings make up the majority of the plane, the result of the discovery that it couldn’t weigh more than a car, if they wanted to make the cross-country flight a reality. The rest of the plane is stripped down to the bare minimum – to the point where the toilet is built into the pilot’s seat.  

In addition to the design of The Solar Impulse, the operation of the plane served as a major challenge. At this point, its maximum speed is about 50 miles per hour, while in another effort to be more efficient, the plane climbs to an altitude of 30,000 feet during the day and gradually descends to lower elevations at night. All of these factors show that solar will likely never play much of a role in powering commercial flight, which Borschberg and Piccard understand – their upcoming trans-American flight, along with a scheduled around-the-world flight in 2015 is meant to challenge assumptions about what solar power is capable of achieving. 

Drew Nitschke is a first-year graduate student at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, working towards degree in Environmental Economics and Policy. He is especially interested in sustainability and how it relates to business of all sizes. He graduated from UCLA in June 2012 after...
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