EU: Solar plane developed by European scientists

European university scientists are at the heart of a research project in developing a solar powered aircraft that could fly around the world without fuel. This development may have a significantly positive impact on the environment in the long term, as well as a potentially huge overhaul of the airline industry, should the technology become widely adopted.

Scientists involved in the scheme include academics from the University of Stuttgart in Germany, Brussels University, the Polytechnic University of Madrid, the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, and others.

The prototype plane of the European Commission-backed 'Solar Impulse' project, currently under construction in Dübendorf, Switzerland, will have a wingspan of 61 metres and weigh 1,500 kilograms. Its 12,000 photovoltaic cells are in 130 micron mono-crystalline silicon, selected for its lightness and energy efficiency. Test flights are scheduled for early next year and the two pilots have this month spent 25 hours non-stop on its controls in a flight simulator.

One of the pilots, André Borschberg, who is also chief executive of the project said: "The research carried out within the framework of the Solar Impulse already shows that we can save impressive quantities of energy. In this sense, the project has been invaluable in triggering developments that will come about in areas other than aviation."

After the initial prototype, the lessons learned will be applied to developing a second aircraft, designed to cross the Atlantic in 2011 and then - hopefully - achieving a round-the-world flight.
Documents from the project explained that its concepts would "push back the limits of our knowledge in the field of materials, energy management and the man-machine interface...This is an aircraft with an inordinate wingspan for its weight and of an aerodynamic quality that to this day has not been equalled, capable of tremendous resistance, despite its light weight".

Project coordinators are stressing the development of composite structures, intelligent light materials, and means of producing and storing energy would not only be useful for building aircraft, but numerous other applications useful to society.