Transportation innovations are all pointed in the direction of solar, so why should airplanes be any different? Solar airplanes are being developed that can cut costs and reduce the impact on the environment, but there is still some time before we will find ourselves with a boarding pass. Still, a solar powered airplane is definitely in the cards for our lifetime, so what are some of the things we should know about them?
Are Solar Panel Airplanes in Development?
The short answer to this question is yes. Are the planes ready to take on passengers? Not quite yet. In 2015 the Solar Impulse 2, a fully solar powered airplane, spent 23 days in the air without the use of any fossil fuels. That means no jet fuel of any kind. Instead, 17,000 solar cells and a bank of powerful batteries, which helped to keep the plane in the air during the night, powered the plane. These solar panels were all placed on the wings, which are wider than that of a Boeing 747.
The plane itself was only large enough to house the two pilots who flew the almost 25,000 miles around the world. During the daylight, the plane used its solar panels to charge a bank of batters that kept the plane in the air at night. Reaching heights up to 29,000 feet and lows of 5,000 feet, the flight showed the difficulties of operating a completely solar powered plane.
How Can Solar Power Airplanes Benefit the Travel Industry?
While solar airplanes are far from being airline ready, we can still consider the benefits that would come with them. They include:
- Less Pollution: The major impact that air travel has on the environment is the pollution that stems from the consumption of fuel, which causes damage to the ozone. According to the Washington Post, “some estimates have suggested that by 2020, emissions from aviation could be 70 percent higher than they were in 2005.” This increase in emissions could continue to deteriorate the ozone, which is a major cause for global warming.
- Longer Travel Distances: If the Solar Impulse 2 was any indication, a solar panel airplane can stay in the air much longer. Using solar panels alone, the Solar Impulse 2 was able to fly for 23 days straight. Imagine what that would mean for conventional airlines? No more layovers or refueling stops, and longer flight paths connecting even the furthest destinations.
- Money Savings: While the initial investment in solar powered airplanes will be large, the long-term savings should eventually cover the cost. Without the need for high fuel costs, and the constant need for mechanical repairs, airlines could save millions.
- Technology Innovation: When new problems arise, the need for technological solutions do too. In order to create solar powered airplanes, innovations need to be made in battery technology and airplane design. These same innovations could also have a great impact on the world at large.
Creating a solar powered plane is a new frontier in aviation that creates limitless opportunities. While engineers are only scratching the surface now, once developed, we could find ourselves traveling the world in a whole new way.
What Powers Solar Airplanes?
Making a solar powered plane fly is a combination of aerodynamic design, flight skills, and technological innovations. First, the design plays a huge role in a planes ability to fly. The Solar Impulse 2 for example had a 72m wingspan and a weight of only 2.3-tons. Compare that to the 68.5m wingspan and 154-ton weight of a Boeing 747.
What the solar powered plane lacks in jet power, it makes up for in solar panels. These solar panels cover the wings and are connected to a bank of batteries. As the plane flies, it uses to solar panels to charge the batteries. This is why the flight height reaches its highest when the sun is fully out.
While these batteries can keep the plane in the air, they do not compare to the power of jet fuel. A Boeing 747 can reach top speeds of 988 km/h, while the Solar Impulse 2 only hit speeds of 140 km/h. This not only affects speed, but also distance traveled, which is where solar powered airplanes suffer.
The Solar Solution
While the benefits of solar powered airplanes are obvious, there are still some major hurdles to overcome. For one, figuring out how to load passengers, luggage, and supplies in a solar powered plane without sacrificing power will be a major concern. Similarly, the overall size of the plane would need to be adjusted. In the end, the solar solution is the future, but new technology needs to be created to ensure success. If, however, the car industry is any indication, we may be flying in a solar powered plane before we know it.