When will we see commercial solar planes? – ( Solar Thermal Magazine)
Solar Plane Technology
Unlike solar powered and/or electric cars, people don’t seem to be actively discussing the possibility of a solar plane flying through our skies in the future. If we think about it, solar-powered planes can potentially change how we travel in the future. Relying only on power harvested from the sun through their solar cells, these planes can theoretically keep on flying forever.
The problem right now though is that the technology is still a long ways off from being commercially viable. Although there are a number of functional solar planes right now, these can only seat around 1 or 2 people. Also these planes were mainly designed to prove that solar powered flight is possible.
One thing that you’ll notice about any solar plane design is its long wing span. This results in an increased surface area that makes it possible to cram as many solar cells on the plane. Another specific feature of these planes’ design that you’re bound to notice is how aerodynamic they are. Their long wing span serves a dual purpose by allowing them to glide when in flight. You could say that this ingenious design (not dissimilar to that of some gliders’) is necessary since these planes can’t just rely on the thrust generated by their solar powered engines to propel them forward.
The Sunseeker and Sunseeker Duo, Solar Flight
When talking about solar-powered airplanes, the Sunseeker shouldn’t be left out of the discussion. With Eric Raymond piloting, it became the first solar plane to successfully cross the United States in the 90s. It wasn’t until 2009 that the Sunseeker saw a re-design which resulted in the Sunseeker II. This time, the plane went on to fly all over Europe and became the first solar-powered aircraft to cross the Alps on its way to Spain’s southern coast. After the success of the Sunseeker II, Solar Flight (the company that makes these planes) worked on the Sunseeker Duo. Not only does this plane feature a longer wingspan (22 meters) and 1510 solar cells, it’s also capable of taking on two passengers.
Solar Impulse and Solar Impulse II
Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg’s Solar Impulse and Solar Impulse II are unquestionably the most popular solar powered planes today. Featuring a wingspan (72m) longer than that of Boeing 747 and housing 17000 solar cells, the Solar Impulse II aims to be the first solar plane to fly day and night while only using solar power. Considering its wingspan, the plane is also extremely light weighing at only 2300 kilograms. The first Solar Impulse had already flown 24 hours and completed an intercontinental flight without relying on a single drop of fuel. Currently, the Solar Impulse II is set to fly for 5 consecutive days and nights in its bid to be the first solar powered airplane to cross the Pacific (China to Hawaii).
Vehicles (planes, cars, and ships) that make use of solar and/or other alternative energy sources will always have a place in our future. The question really is will we live long enough to see solar planes with the capacity to take on a hundred or more passengers in our airports? Although private corporations/companies like Solar Flight and Solar Impulse’s research and results have been revolutionary, they’re still a long way off from commercial viability. Perhaps in 50 years we’ll see a world where planes can fly infinitely using solar power. For now, all we can do is cheer on people like Eric Raymond, Bertrand Piccard, and Andre Borschberg in their efforts to advance this technology for humanity’s future.
We will keep you updated on the state of the art for solar plane technology.