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Solar Impulse: the future of impossible

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Last year I had the amazing chance to chat with Solar Impulse pilot André Borschberg. I found André to be an incredibly inspiring guy: brave, dedicated, visionary, charismatic but also humble…and did I mention brave?

His team’s incredible solar-powered plane is right now breaking all kinds of records and changing the way we think about ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’

Below is some of the article that came out of my interview with André, first published in CSIRO’s awesome Double Helix magazine. I hope you find his words as inspiring as I do!

(Interested in science? Want to inspire your kids or grandkids? Subscribe to Australia’s Double Helix mag.)

SEEK THE SUN: Adventures in solar

By Cris Burne for Double Helix

IMG_7036On 9 March 2015, Solar Impulse took to the skies in an attempt to fly around the world.

The plane’s pilots will need courage, speed and endurance…but not a drop of fossil fuel. Because this plane doesn’t need heavy petrol tanks, noisy engines or polluting fumes. What it does need is sunshine.

Solar Impulse’s impressive wings are covered in solar panels: light-weight versions of those you see on rooftops. Silicon in the panels absorbs the Sun’s energy, booting electrons into motion and creating electricity.

We had to build an aircraft that uses very little energy, so we can fly [at night] with batteries that we charge during the day,” says pilot and engineer André Borschberg.

This aircraft is a demonstration of ways we can save energy, and how best to use the energy we have available,” he says.

We can do this not just in aviation, but in everything we do … in the way we build homes, cars, washing machines, refrigerators.”

From problem to opportunity

Solar Impulse’s round-the-world trip is split into 13 stages. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The team had planned to fly from China to Hawai’i in June, but bad weather forced a landing in Japan on the way.

When they resumed the flight from Japan to Hawai’i, disaster struck. The plane’s batteries overheated and needed repairs. With winter in the northern hemisphere approaching, Solar Impulse was grounded until sunnier days.

Fortunately in Hawai’i we have the perfect infrastructure in terms of hangar, airport, people who are welcoming … the problem turned into an opportunity,” André says.

We can always get something out of difficulty. People who fail are already much more advanced than people who have never tried.”

The flight from Japan to Hawai’i took five days and nights of non-stop flying, earning it the world record for longest solo flight without refuelling. It’s also the first time a solar plane has crossed an ocean.

Very often we set our own limits, because people tell us something is impossible,” says André.

People say the Earth is completely explored, so what can we do?

“I think for the new generation, what they can do is to develop ways for us to live better, to live with less energy, to live in a way that better protects the wonderful environment we have received. That’s where they can explore.”

IMG_7033Inside Solar Impulse 2

  • From wing to wing and down to the tail, the plane sports 17 248 solar cells
  • The plane weighs 2300 kilograms: about the same as a small car and less than one per cent of the weight of an A380 Airbus
  • Lithium-ion batteries take up a quarter of the plane’s weight and store solar energy
  • Four battery-powered engines receive about 340 000 watts of power each day: enough to drive a motorcycle.
  • Daily rations include 2.5 litres of water and 2.4 kilograms of nutritional and mushy meals.



Author: cristyburne


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