Solar Impulse Airplane On Journey Across America

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Solar Impulse In-Flight Picture

The Solar Impulse aircraft has a wingspan roughly equal to a Boeing 747, but weighs less than most cars and is powered completely by the sun’s rays. The massive solar panels atop the wings help it produce enough electricity to turn four 10-horsepower electric motors for the propellers in addition to storing energy in a lithium-ion battery pack that allows the plane to fly at night. (Jean Revillard photo courtesy Solar Impulse)

Solar-powered cars are nothing new, though they tend to be highly specialized, highly impractical machines for most of us. But a solar-powered airplane capable of flying day and night? I already hear you saying, “No way!”

Way. It’s called the Solar Impulse.

The Solar Impulse is currently making a journey across America’s mainland. Taking off Friday, May 3 from NASA’s Ames Research Center near San Jose, CA, pilot Bertrand Piccard flew some 18 hours and 18 minutes before reaching Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport Saturday, May 4 to complete the first leg of the aircraft’s journey across America. Sure, your garden variety Boeing 747-400 can do that same distance in what would seem like a few minutes, by comparison, but she’ll also drink a veritable tanker’s-worth of fuel.

The point of the Solar Impulse isn’t to carry passengers or heavy cargo, which are things a jumbo jet like the big, ubiquitous Boeing excels at. It’s to prove, first of all, that an airplane powered only by solar energy can fly day and night. Secondly, the project’s founders hope the airplane can serve as “a flying laboratory to find innovative technological solutions for today’s challenges and a vision to inspire each of us to be pioneers in our everyday lives,” according to the Solar Impulse’s official press release boilerplate.

Speaking of that 747, though, the Solar Impulse’s wingspan is roughly equal to that very jumbo jet, at 208 feet. Unlike the massive Boeing 747, however, the Solar Impulse weighs less than most of the cars we’ve tested here at In-Car Tech Tell, tipping the scales at just 3,527 lbs thanks to its carbon fiber structure It has 12,000 solar cells on the wings that power four 10-horsepower electric motors. The cells make sufficient power to spin the propellers by day while simultaneously charging the Solar Impulse’s 881-lb lithium-ion battery pack to allow it to continue flying after sundown.

After being displayed in Phoenix for a few days, the Solar Impulse plans to take off sometime later this month en route to Dallas/Fort Worth, TX for the second leg of its journey. The third leg of the trip will take Solar Impulse to St. Louis, then on to Washington, DC for the fourth leg before finally ending with the fifth leg from DC to New York City in early July.

It will be interesting to see what comes of the lessons learned by the Solar Impulse crew in terms of technology that may revitalize solar applications in cars. Currently, one of the widest uses of solar technology in cars is in EV charging stations and in the Nissan LEAF’s mini solar panel that is used to aid climate control when the car is parked away from a charging station for a while. We think it would be cool if the LEAF, for instance, had the ability to convert solar energy to power the car and store some for getting us home, just as the Solar Impulse does.

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