The Solar Impulse 2: An Innovative Solar Airplane

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Photo by Solar Impulse/Stefatou/
Powered completely by the sun, the innovative Solar Impulse 2 airplane is in the midst of a historic journey.

You may think the age of aviation firsts has flown by, with renowned trips and famous failures firmly in the books. But now the Solar Impulse 2, a totally solar-powered airplane that’s been in the works for more than a decade, is reaching new heights with its historic, fossil-fuel-free flight around the world.

Prior to this journey, a prototype, Solar Impulse 1, successfully flew across Europe, Morocco and the United States to test the technology. With each landing, the pilots and team, which are based in Switzerland, reached out to NGOs, universities and schools to promote clean technologies. The team then progressed to Solar Impulse 2, constructed of carbon fiber and boasting a 72-meter wingspan outfitted with 17,000 solar cells.

The solar-powered airplane embarked from the United Arab Emirates on March 9, 2015, with a route that included stops in Oman, India, Myanmar, China and Hawaii. The plane can fly even after the sun sets by tapping into the power stored in its lithium batteries.

While in transit across the Pacific Ocean, the plane’s batteries began to overheat, so it stopped in Hawaii to undergo repairs. The next leg of the flight, which will take them across the United States and over the Atlantic Ocean, is on hold until spring 2016.

Pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg set out to demonstrate that we can innovate with alternative energies — in this case, solar power — to achieve the “impossible” while sustainably maintaining some aspects of our modern-day lifestyles. Currently, air travel in the United States alone generates 146.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year, so bringing renewables to this transportation sector could have a significant, positive impact.

You can keep up with the plane’s innovative strides — and the challenges it’s faced along its journey — online at Solar Impulse’s website.

Amanda Sorell is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine.

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