Founder criticises aviation industry for lack of interest as Solar Impulse takes off on round-the-world journey
Solar Impulse leaves Muscat, Oman for its Arabian Sea crossing to India
Tue 10 Mar 2015 – After 12 years in the making, the solar-powered Solar Impulse aircraft took off yesterday from Abu Dhabi on the first stage of its maiden round-the-world flight. Weighing the equivalent of a small car but with the wingspan of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, the aircraft flew to Muscat in Oman before crossing the Arabian Sea to Ahmedabad in India today – the longest distance ever flown by a solar airplane – on a five-month journey. During its 12 scheduled stops, the Solar Impulse team and its partners will organise events for governments, schools and universities to demonstrate the importance of clean technologies. Harnessing the sun’s energy to power anything heavier than a light aircraft is unlikely for the foreseeable future and so the Solar Impulse experiment has no immediate benefits for commercial aviation, although attempts are being made by scientists to extract liquid fuels suitable for aviation use from technologies powered by the sun.
Flown in rotation by Swiss aviators André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, who both started the project, the Solar Impulse 2 plane can fly day and night up to an altitude of 8,500 metres (27,800 feet) at speeds ranging from 50 to 100 km/h, and is powered by more than 17,000 solar cells covering the wing.
Abu Dhabi was chosen as the start and end point for the journey because of the participation by Masdar as the host partner. The research arm of Masdar is currently involved in a project with Boeing and Etihad Airways to produce sustainable aviation biofuels from seawater-tolerant salicornia plants in the UAE (see article).
The main partners of the venture are Solvay, Omega, Schindler and ABB, with support from many other companies and organisations, such as Google and the government of Monaco. Aeronautical partners include ICAO, IATA and French aerospace company Dassault.
Piccard told the BBC that he hoped the pioneering materials used in the construction of the aircraft could be used elsewhere, but said he wasn’t concerned that there had not been much interest from the commercial aviation sector in the Solar Impulse project. “They did not believe in what we were doing or that it was possible,” he said. “But that is normal. It wasn’t the people who were selling candles who invented the light bulb. If you want a paradigm shift, you need people from the outside.”
To coincide with the start of the round-the-world flight, Solar Impulse has launched the #Futureisclean initiative, which is supported by Prince Albert of Monaco, UAE Minister of State and Chairman of Masdar Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Sir Richard Branson, Christina Figueres of UNFCCC, Miguel-Arias Cañete of the European Commission and Al Gore. The aim is promote a clean technology future in the lead up to the UN climate negotiations in Paris later this year.