First Solar Powered Flight

June 2010 may one day be viewed in the annals of history the same way as December 1903 and May 1927—the dates of the Wright brothers’ first flight and Charles Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic. Why?

In June 2010, the Solar Impulse, the first solar-powered flight took off and successfully flew for over an hour.

Until now, most green initiatives have focused on cars rather than on planes.  Hybrids car are becoming commonplace, cars that run on biodiesel are readily available, and more and more electronic/solar powered cars coming into the showrooms every year.

But while cars are becoming more environmentally-friendly, (they still have a long way to go) conventional airplanes remain choking environmental hazards.  Airplanes emit large quantities of greenhouse gasses – carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides.  Nitrous oxides can be particularly harmful at the high altitudes that planes typically fly. Newer airplanes are becoming more fuel efficient, but you’d be amazed at the rate of fuel consumption used to haul your rear-end quickly to another spot!

Commercial flights leave a huge carbon footprint.  Whenever possible, try to avoid flying. Planes are the least fuel-efficient for trips under 500 miles, so consider driving a fuel efficient car on these shorter road trips.  Better yet, look into bus and train options.  I know here on the U.S East Coast, you can zip between the major cities for as little as $25 on a bus.  That’s hard to beat, (considering gas, tolls, wear-tear on your car) unless you’re carpooling.

Getting back to the futuristic slant of this article, the Solar Impulse contains 12,000 photovoltaic solar cells, weighs only as much as a medium-sized car, and is powered exclusively by the sun. The plane is propelled by electric motors, and can seat only one passenger right now, but it’s the start of solar-powered flying. The plane looks slightly awkward as it has an extremely long wingspan and almost resembles a mechanical pterodactyl. For updates check out Solar Impulse.

The Solar Impulse is an exciting development both because it is a step towards sustainable commercial flights and because it bodes well for the development of environmental alternatives to other modern technologies.  It seems only logical that many other devices can emulate the plane and go solar as well.

The team that designed and built the Solar Impulse has ambitious plans for the future. Their next goal is to fly around the world on only solar power by 2012. This will be quite a task, as it entails flying at night when there is no sunlight to actively power the plane. In addition, the maiden voyage only got up to speeds around 40 to 50 miles per hour, so they are working on increasing the speed.

This is a bright spot in the future of eco-friendly flying, and will hopefully lead to planes that are more environmentally friendly.


About the author

John R. Garnet

John's work in the energy market fostered his interest in the environment. He recently completed his graduate work at George Mason University, But more interestingly, John has a passion for food and cooking and to provides some light-hearted tips to make people's lives greener while enjoy the good life with everyday practical tips from brewing tea, growing basil, or drinking raw milk.