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Solar Impulse: Is Africa ready for solar-powered planes?

Solar Impulse: Is Africa ready for solar-powered planes?

Solar Impulse is a Swiss long-range experimental solar-powered aircraft project and also the name of the project’s two operational aircrafts.

The project is privately-financed and led by Swiss engineer and businessman Andre Borschberg and Swiss psychiatrist and aeronaut Bertrand Piccard.

The Solar Impulse project intends to achieve the first circumnavigation of the earth by a piloted fixed-wing aircraft using only solar power and to bring attention to clean technologies.

Solar Impulse 2, before the tests

Solar Impulse 2 is the second aircraft, completed in 2014, after the Solar Impulse 1 (first tested in 2009). The Solar Impulse 2 carries more solar cells and more powerful motors, among other improvements.

In March 2015, Piccard and Borschberg began an attempt to circumnavigate the globe with Solar Impulse 2, departing from Abu Dhahi in the United Arab Emirates. The aircraft was scheduled to return to Abu Dhabi in August 2015 after a multi-stage journey.

By June 2015, the plane had traversed Asia, and in July 2015, it completed the longest leg of its journey, from Japan to Hawaii.

During that leg, however, the aircraft’s batteries experienced thermal damage that took months to repair. Solar Impulse 2 resumed the circumnavigation on April 21, 2016 reaching California, U.S.A. on April 23. In May and June, it continued across the United States, and on June 11, 2016, it reached New York City.

Solar Impulse is not the first solar airplane. But it is the first to fly day and night, without any fuel, using only energy stored in its batteries. It is also the first to have achieved an oceanic crossing: 5 days and nights from Nagoya, Japan, to Kalaeloa, Hawaii.

Behind Solar Impulse’s achievements, there is always the same goal: show that if an airplane can fly several days and nights in a row with no fuel, then clean technologies can be used on the ground to reduce our energy consumption, and create profit and jobs.

The plane’s unusual look undoubtedly helps the message of the project to be spread worldwide. The wingspan of a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, the weight is very light, the power of a small motorcycle, Solar Impulse 2 is the largest aircraft ever built with such a low weight.

solar impulse
Solar Impulse 2, labeling the various compartments for the aircraft

Solar Impulse 2 was built to take up the challenge of achieving the first round-the-world solar flight. This revolutionary airplane has to do what no one has ever done before: fly through five consecutive days and nights without using any fuel, so as to cross oceans from one continent to the next.

The Solar Impulse 2 has a wingspan of 72 m, with a weight of 2.3 tonnes. Solar Impulse 2 is made of carbon fiber and has 17,248 solar cells built into the wing that supply the plane with renewable energy via four motors. The solar cells recharge four lithium polymer batteries, which provide power for night flying.

solar imp

The maximum flight time it has achieved in its last flight was 117 hours 52 minutes (André Borschberg), with a maximum altitude of 28,000 feet. It moved at an average airspeed of 75 km/hour, and a maximum recorded ground speed of 216 km/h. All this was achieved with no fuel consumption.

As stated on the Solar Impulse 2 website, to take an airplane to such a high efficiency level of energy efficiency that it can fly day and night relying only on the sun, it requires the optimization of new kinds of technology and a drastic reduction in energy consumption. The components normally used in aircraft construction are far too heavy for Solar Impulse. That is why Solar Impulse’s 80 engineers and technicians, under André Borschberg’s leadership, have had to apply highly innovative solutions.

We need to note that achieving this technology has been doubted by both civil and military aircraft makers, with the view that it is impossible to make an aircraft like this.

The developed world has gone farther in technology than the developing nations today. African countries may still need to consider the use of solar powered aircraft for commercial passenger plane.

In addition to that, the pilot must have exceptional stamina to control this plane which is sensitive to turbulence because of its broad wing and light weight. This slow speed and light weight means it can only travel in certain weather conditions. For example, in high winds or turbulence it can struggle to stay aloft at the altitudes necessary to gather sunlight.

While the developed world are proposing and supporting the use of the solar-powered airplanes for passenger planes, we should not forget the challenges that come with this plane. Remember, the plane has failed before due to overheating. The solar-powered aircraft was left stranded on the ground in Hawaii last summer after suffering battery problems in the previous leg of its journey.

2016 05 25 13th Leg Take off Dayton 102
Solar Impulse 2, at the 13th Leg Take off on May 25, 2016.

Besides, the power of this plane depends so much on the weather. What if the charging system fails? And of course, we know the solar cells cannot get charges at night? The safety of passengers should be of paramount importance when drawing out decisions on the use of this new technology in Africa.

Using it as it is now, for a few number of travel crew isn’t a bad idea, but putting it in the passenger list of aircraft, that is too soon to be considered.

However, like Piccard said, we can look to this new development in aircraft technology to be a shift towards the technology-produced energy and gas pollution, to a clean technology. Foxnews reported Piccard, Solar Impulse chairman and pilot, to say that: “In the 21st century, liberty is to be free from fossil energy and pollution, we can have clean technology that creates jobs, sustains growth – it’s a new market for the world.”

To this end, while it gladdens our heart to learn of new technological developments in all aspects of human life, we also need to be critical in examining whether these new technologies are ripe for adoption and used in the African society.

Success Kafoi Journalist at Technology Times Media. Mobile: 08077671673 email: success.kafoi@technologytimes.ng

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