Around The World In A Solar Powered Plane

A solar powered plane trip around the world may soon leave the realms of science fiction and become reality. ‘Solar Impulse’, a  1500 kilogram solar plane with a 61 meter wing span, will be undergoing its first test flight in April next year according to the team’s project communication head Phil Mundwiller. 

This will be followed by the round the world attempt in May 2011, commencing with a crossing of the US and the Atlantic. The plane is also expected to go into commercial production in 2011.

Solar Impulse will capture sunlight using 12,000 photovoltaic cells. Each cell is made from 130 micron monocrystalline silicon. Solar Impulse will be able to fly at night through energy stored in a 400 kilogram deep cycle battery bank, accounting for 25% of the plane’s overall weight.

Solar Impulse’s frame is carbon fibre-honeycomb composite. The underside of the wings are wrapped in a flexible film, with the upper surface made up of solar cells. Each wing has 4 pods, each containing a 10 horsepower electric motor and a polymer lithium battery. The gear box will limit the rotation of each 3.5 metre diameter propeller to 200-400 revolutions per minute.

Thermal insulation will conserve heat radiated by the batteries to allow the aircraft to continue operating  at extremely low temperatures it will encounter, down to -40 °C,  while flying at a height of 8500 meters. 

The team behind SolarImpulse consists of over 50 specialists from six countries, plus an additional 100 external advisers working on the construction of the first prototypes. The project has been costed at approximately USD $100 million.

More on SolarImpulse solar powered plane project.