Solar Powered Airplane Plans US Flight

Swiss project Solar Impulse is planning to fly a solar powered aircraft across the United States in May.

The HB-SIA weighs about the same as a car but boasts a wingspan equal to to that of an Airbus A340. On May 1, the airplane is scheduled to fly from NASA’s Moffett Field in Silicon Valley, Calif., to New York City. It plans to make  stops in Phoenix, Dallas and Washington, D.C., en route, reports Forbes.

The airplane features a carbon fiber structure and a propulsion chain and flight instrumentation designed specifically to save energy and to resist the hostile conditions facing the aircraft and its pilot at high altitudes.

With 200 m² of photovoltaic cells and a 12 percent total efficiency of the propulsion chain, the plane’s four motors each generate around 10 horsepower, Solar Impulse says.

In July 2010, the HB-SIA flew for 26 hours straight proving that a solar-powered plane could fly at night. The lessons learned by the team from that flight are now being applied to the construction of a second airplane, Solar Impulse HB-SIB, which is due to circumnavigate the Earth in 2015.

According to Forbes, Solar Impulse is hoping the US flight will get the public enthused about the possibility of using cleaner fuel to fly. But solar-powered flight enthusiasts should perhaps try to contain their excitement in the near term: Back in January one of the project’s founders told Forbes that commercial flights using solar power is likely four decades away. Furthermore, the HB-SIA arrived in the US in February, transported here by a 747.

The US Department of Energy is pursuing carbon fiber technology research on its own. In March, the DOE cut the ribbon of its Carbon Fiber Technology Facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The plant aims to reduce the cost of carbon fiber, which is a critical material for efficient lightweight vehicles such at the HB-SIA, next generation wind turbines and a wide array of other consumer and industrial products.

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