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It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane, it’s a Solar Powered Plane! | Solar Energy USA Blog Archive

It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane, it’s a Solar Powered Plane!

Posted on Wednesday, May 8th, 2013 at 9:23 am by Solar Energy USA

The team at Solar Impulse is taking solar power to a whole new level. According to their website, “Solar Impulse’s ambition is for the world of exploration and innovation to contribute to the cause of renewable energies, to demonstrate the importance of clean technologies for sustainable development; and to place dreams and emotions back at the heart of scientific adventure.” Launched in 2003, it completed the world’s first solar 26-hour day and night flight in 2010.


This year Solar Impulse will be attempting the celebrated coast-to-coast flight of the United States, West to East. On Saturday, May 4th the team completed the first leg of their Across America tour, taking off in San Francisco and landing safely in Phoenix. During the flight Bertrand Piccard, the solar plane’s pilot, heard an aircraft asking the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) about Solar Impulse and why he had to remain at a distance. The ATC replied, “Just think of a flying electric car!” cracking Bertrand into a hearty laugh.

A deep-blue array of 12,000 silicon solar cells stretches across the more than 60-meter wingspan, which is nearly as long as a Boeing 747’s. At 1,600 kilograms, the airplane weighs less than a compact car. The electricity-producing solar cells themselves are only 135 microns thick—the width of a human hair—yet they can convert more than 20 percent of the incoming sunlight into electricity, and more than enough for takeoff, powered flight and a daily recharge of the batteries that keep the plane aloft through the night.


Takeoff requires 10 horsepower from each of four electric engines, which is supplied by the solar cells and pre-charged lithium ion batteries [90kWh]. The engines are quickly throttled back to seven horsepower to climb and then as little as 2.5 horsepower per engine is required at cruising altitude where the plane flies at roughly 80 kilometers per hour. The plane climbs to 9,000 meters by mid-afternoon when the sun shines most abundantly and then, to conserve power, slowly descends to 1,500 meters over the course of the evening where it flies on battery power until the next sunrise, when the cycle repeats anew. “In order to stay airborne until the next sunrise it has to be that big and that light,” Piccard explains. “We have calculated what we need in terms of energy, so that gave us the surface and it gave us the wing loading.”

You can keep up with the team’s journey by clicking here and you can watch a number of great videos by clicking here.

While Solar Impulse’s story displays some highly innovative successes, they are not the only pioneers of solar powered transport.


PlanetSolar is a massive solar powered boat lead by a crew of 4 with a total capacity to hold 60 people. 516 m2 of photovoltaic solar panels power 6 blocks of lithium-ion battery, a technology that offers maximal power and energy density.


Bring on the 100% solar powered cars!