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Page added on December 29, 2009

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Can a solar-powered airplane be the future of aviation?

While the world’s attention was tuned to the recent global climate conference in Copenhagen, in an old airplane hangar on a small Swiss airfield, a group of visionaries, dreamers and engineers was busily assembling a vehicle that is their solution to global climate change and the future of commercial aviation. This airplane uses no fossil or bio-fuels. It is a solar-powered airplane, collecting the sun’s rays on 12,000 solar cells spread across its wings to charge the special lithium-polymer batteries that will continue to power the airplane from sunset till the next sunrise.

Earlier this month the Solar Impulse airplane made its maiden flight (as documented in this YouTube video), rising several feet off the ground and staying aloft for a distance of a little over 1,000 feet, somewhat akin to the first flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, N.C., a little more than a century ago.

This solar airplane prototype has a tiny pilot’s cabin. There are no passengers, no lavatories; not even room for a single piece of luggage. With its four propellers providing an average cruising speed of just 44 miles per hour, you may be skeptical and say it will never replace today’s modern jetliners. But Solar Impulse president Dr. Bertrand Piccard reminds those skeptics that when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927, his airplane was only large enough for the pilot and a whole lot of fuel and it took 33 hours to cross the ocean.

“When he landed, everybody said, it is beautiful, but if we want to fly everyone must be a pilot because there is no passenger seat,” says Piccard. But just 25 years later, 100-passenger airplanes were routinely crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a fraction of the time it took Lindbergh to fly the route. “I don’t know what happens in 25 years,” says Piccard. “I hope that technology will evolve, that we will have additional solutions.”

USA Today

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