Is it possible to run an airplane on solar power?

This apparently is one of the latest innovations in aviation. The other innovation is that of silicone wings. This means the aircraft’s wing flaps are modeled after birds. The solar energy that powers up the plane is a technology that addresses the high emissions caused by the aviation industry. The innovative aircraft is called Solar Impulse 2.

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Research Team’s Task: Study Bird’s Flying Behavior
The research team, composed of around 50 scientists from 15 European companies, research institutes and universities that received European Union funding had studied the flying behavior of birds in order to come up with a suitable design for the aircraft’s wings. Their studies showed that:

  • the bird’s wings adjust to the airstreams when they land which prevents them from using so much energy.
  • clunky landing flaps are used in aircraft when landing to help channel the air which makes the aircraft use large amounts of energy.
Studying the bird’s flying behavior led to the development of new wing material for aircraft.

Airplane’s New Wing’s Skin
From these comparative findings, the research team was able to develop a new material that will let the airplane wings fly like the wings of a bird. According to a Bremen-based Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials (IFAM) research scientist, Andreas Lühring, their prototype showed that the fuel consumption of the aircraft was reduced by 6% and this is because of the reduced air resistance. Lühring was responsible for the airplane’s new wing’s “skin” – the surface that allows the wing flaps to move seamlessly. The material’s properties make the aircraft lighter, thus promoting reduced consumption of energy.

New Material For Airplane’s Wings
The research team explained that it wasn’t easy to achieve this newly developed material. While the birds find it easy to work their wing flaps to glide with the wind, developing the new material entails taking into consideration a lot of factors. The material needed to be able to cope with -55 degrees Celsius which is the temperature when the plane is at cruising altitude. Most materials get stiff under such temperatures.

Aircraft Wing Problem Addressed By New Material
When a plane lands, it requires the wing materials to be flexible and the material developed by the research team has satisfied this particular requirement. The material formula included the mixing of solid materials like aluminum with soft materials like silicone or silicone foam which is an elastic substance that performs the same functions as a bath sponge when squeezed. Aircraft wing problem solved.

Second Innovation: Solar Power
The other aircraft innovation – running the aircraft on solar power, thus reducing the CO2 emissions was also integrated into the Solar Impulse aircraft. The solar-powered aircraft Solar Impulse uses solar energy as fuel instead of petroleum, providing the plane with unlimited endurance. Solar Impulse’s co-founder, André Borschberg explains that the airplane can fly for weeks and months without the need to refuel.

Why? The airplane collects its energy requirements from the sun. Daytime fuel collection provides enough power for the plane to last the required running time and even during the hours of darkness. Borschber is both a co-founder of Solar Impulse and a former fighter pilot. His impressive career included a record for the world’s longest solar-powered flight four years ago. The first Solar Impulse aircraft flew for 26 hours non-stop.

Solar-powered aircraft will soon navigate the world.

Solar Impulse 2 To Navigate The World on Solar Power
Solar Impulse 2 will be used by Borschberg together with Bertrand Piccard, his co-founder to navigate the world next year in what could be the first undertaking using a solar-powered aircraft. Solar Impulse 2 is a one-seater aircraft that had its maiden flight last month. It has a 72-meter wingspan attached to it using high-grade blind rivet nuts, which makes it wider than a 747 from Boeing. It has no fuel tank as there is no need for one. Instead, it has 17,000 solar cells built into the wings and four electric motors to supply renewable energy.

Is this going to work? You’ll find out soon enough.

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