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Solar Impulse 2: Propelling solar energy forward

Solar Impulse 2: Propelling solar energy forward

Around the world trip without a drop of fuel. Adventurer Bertrand Piccard sets out on another record-setting feat in a solar airplane to promote the cause of green, renewable energy. Solar Impulse 2 will be the first manned solar flight around the globe.

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Savanturier Bertrand Piccard comes from a long line of adventurers. His father explored the deep seas while his grandfather was happy flying up to the stratosphere. Piccard is an aviator, psychiatrist and a lecturer as well as a pioneer of gliding and ultralight flying. He became the European hang-glider acrobatics champion in 1985. Bertrand holds licenses to fly almost anything in the air, from balloons, airplanes, gliders to motor gliders. He is also the person who, along-with Englishman Brian Jones, flew around the world non-stop in a balloon. That feat still holds the record for the longest flight in aviation history, if duration and distance are taken into consideration. That was in 1989. Now skip to 2003 as the year gains prominence because of the official launch of the Solar Impulse project. Piccard’s vision behind this project was to fly around the world in a solar aircraft, without fuel or polluting emissions, thereby promoting the cause of renewable energies and encouraging energy savings.

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‘Solar Impulse’ was created to make this feat possible. The plane underwent extensive tests and trial flights and was piloted non-stop for 26 hours by Andre Borschberg – who is also the co-founder and CEO of the project – for the first time in 2010. This flight demonstrated the solar plane’s ability to fly day and night on solar power alone. Borschberg’s brings along with him a wealth of technical knowledge and business know how. But, his main contribution to the project is to getting things done. He is the one who has put together a team of 65 top specialists from various disciplines and origins. He says that, “This diversity we have sought at every level stimulates their creativity and gives them their strength. It is from this pooling of experiences that original and totally-new solutions arise.”

All the improvements and learnings were incorporated in the final model called the ‘Solar Impulse 2’. The project will fly from Abu Dhabi in the Persian Gulf making its way over India, Myanmar and China. The next leg will cover the Pacific, followed by the crossing of the United States and a non-stop flight across the Atlantic. The Solar Impulse 2 will then return to its starting point via either southern Europe or northern Africa.

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The Solar Impulse 2 was officially unveiled last year in April in Payerne, near Geneva. It boasts of an enormous wingspan of 72 metres that is filled with 17,248 solar cells. The aircraft is built to be ultra-light and tips the scale at just 2,300 kg. This is very important as the body has to compensate for the weight of the lithium ion batteries that drive the electric motors at night. Electric power during the day is provided by the solar cells on the wings; they generate enough power to simultaneously charge the batteries too.

Bayer MaterialScience (BMS) is the official partner for the project and has been instrumental in the development of the revolutionary aircraft supplying several innovative materials in the process. The door is made from Baytherm?? Microcell. The company’s researchers have succeeded in shrinking the pores in the foam by an additional 40 per cent making its insulating capacity ten per cent better than the current standard. Insulation is important as the aircraft has to bear extreme temperatures that can vary between minus 40??C at night and plus 40??C during the day. The cockpit shell is made from rigid polyurethane foam. BMS also supplies materials for the door locks, and thin sheets of transparent, high-performance polycarbonate for the cockpit window.

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On the outside, rigid polyurethane foam is used to insulate the batteries. The raw materials for the silvery coating and the adhesives gluing the textile fabric underneath the wings are also courtesy of BMS.

The journey has already begun and the Solar Impulse 2 landed in Ahmedabad on March 14 at Sardar Vallabhai Patel International Airport. A large crowd, reportedly around 10,000 strong, was present to greet Bertrand and Andre. This turnout is a testament to the excitement that this project has generated among the masses and the congruity of thought with the project’s founder. Needless to say, the auto industry would be watching the progress with interest.