Solar Impulse 2: The aircraft and visionaries behind the promise of sustainable energy

Mumbai,Marco D’Souza: The promises are indeed quite astounding: an aircraft that can, using not a drop of fuel, fly around the globe. History has witnessed mankind chase any number of advancements, from flying higher, to diving lower to peering farther into space to looking deeper within the subatomic realm. Among these, the prospect of being able to circumnavigate our planet using nothing more than the power of sunlight has been the stuff of science fiction. Until now, that is.

When this astounding aircraft touched down at Ahmedabad, the first leg of its 35,000 Km round the world journey, we got a chance to experience this machine up close, and speak with the pioneering team behind this daring undertaking. Walking across the sultry afternoon tarmac at Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel airport toward the massive air-conditioned hangar specially set up to house Solar Impulse 2, nothing quite prepares you for the scale of this machine.

Its span from wingtip to wingtip is 72 meters. Thats greater than a Boeing 747-8 and roughly equivalent to the height of a 24-storey building. Its airframe, crafted almost entirely from carbon fibre, is one of the reasons why the entire aircraft tips the scales at just 2,300 Kg–about the same as a fully-loaded Tata Sumo you’ll see plying our highways. And all of this propelled by four electric engines that run on the sun’s energy, powering the craft around this little rock in space we call home.

Building a fantastic machine such as this was a journey itself. Commencing about 12 years ago, it began when two Swiss gentlemen, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, first met and tossed around the idea of circumnavigating the globe using nothing more than the energy from our friendly neighbourhood star.

As Bertrand Piccard–Initiator, Chairman and pilot of Solar Impulse–walks in and takes a seat in the interview area nestled into one part of the massive hangar, he immediately comes across as one of those classically perfect men you’ll spot in a Swiss watch advertisement: fit to the tee, with an Omega strapped on. But the instant he starts speaking, you can’t help but get drawn to the passion his narrative exudes as he walks through his pet project. From his earliest days, he was no stranger to pioneering influences–born into scientific exploration royalty, his grandfather Auguste Piccard, in 1930, made the first ever flight into the stratosphere. He was the inventor of the pressurized cabin. And we’re all familiar with the influence that particular invention has had on modern aviation. One generation later, his father, Jacques Piccard, headed the other direction and dived to the deepest point in the ocean in 1960–the Mariana Trench–inside a bathyscape he designed and built to withstand the immense pressure that those depths: an invention that massively furthered deep-sea exploration from there on.

Growing up in such illustrious company, he met the likes of Charles Lindbergh and numerous astronauts, drivers and pioneers in the field of scientific exploration and discovery. “I wanted to have a life both exciting, yet useful to others”, he says with a broad smile. A doctor by training, specializing in psychiatry and psychotherapy, he decided to also train himself in hot air ballooning. After proceeding to win a cross-Atlantic race, he decided to circumnavigate the globe in one. Two failed attempts later, he eventually did so in 1999. His dream of Solar Impulse was a natural follow-through. “Solar Impulse represents what I love in life: scientific exploration, protection of the environment and human adventure”, he states.

Did you know: Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard played by Patrick Stewart, was named after Bertrand’s grandfather’s twin brother.

André Borschberg, CEO, Co-Founder and pilot of Solar Impulse, comes across as the perfect complement to Bertrand. He is the technical brain behind the operation and–I couldn’t help but notice–bears an uncanny resemblance to Robert DeNiro, both in demeanor and stature. An engineer from MIT, he brings extensive experience with both the technology of flying and piloting itself (he flew for over 20 years with the Swiss Air Force), and today holds a range of licenses for professional aircraft and helicopters. As the operations head of Solar Impulse, he assembled a team of over 60 specialists who oversee the numerous aspects associated with the mission–from building the aircraft to maintaining it every step of the way to plotting an optimal path as it journeys across the globe. “We needed to find a way to build an aircraft that is super-robust and super-light at the same time, and above all extremely energy-efficient, so as to need only minuscule amounts of energy in order to fly. But all this whilst maintaining the same strength of materials as in a normal airplane. Hence the great complexity of the project, which gives the true measure of its philosophy and its objectives,” he states.

The real breakthrough in this project came in 2010 when, for the first time in history, he flew 26 straight hours in the Solar Impulse airplane (the predecessor to this one), demonstrating it was indeed possible to fly day and night powered purely by solar energy.

The aircraft, designed for only a single pilot, will see Bertrand and André flying alternate segments along its route. Among the challenges they face is the need to withstand hours of solitude and fatigue in a tiny 3.8 cubic meter cockpit, all the while staying in complete command of the aircraft. André is an active practitioner of Yoga, which he believes is central to his ability to cope with the physical and mental strains associated with the long-haul flights ahead. Bertrand utilizes self-hypnosis, which he says lets him positively visualize obstacles and deal with his emotions more effectively.

On moving clean technologies ahead

As both Bertrand and André reinforced over the course of the interaction, one of the key aims of this mission is to advance technologies that can eventually be utilized not just in aviation, but in several other sectors like civil and automotive engineering, even personal electronics. For example, the electric engines developed for Solar Impulse 2 operate with an unprecedented 97 percent efficiency, the plane exclusively uses low-power LEDs, they’ve developed insulation for the batteries that could be used to create more thermally-efficient buildings, and the weight-reduction strategies used in the airplane can be replicated for any moving system that would benefit from being lighter. And there are a host of companies backing this mission from the likes of Moët Hennessy to Google to even insurance and chemical firms. As Bertrand stated, industries need to realize that clean technology is not just about Solar power or wind power; it’s also about saving energy and creating new avenues of alternate energy sources. Using these current-day clean-energy developments, they say that by simply replacing the old polluting technologies with these newer more efficient ones we can halve the energy consumption of the world, straight off the bat.

In closing, I asked Bertrand for a message he’d like to deliver to three groups of people: the future of our planet: children; the ones tasked with making the decisions: government bodies; and the ones who can make as great a difference as any human: women. Listen to the inspiring message he has to deliver:

As I walk away from the hangar and turn around for one last look before Solar Impulse 2 departs for Varanasi, then on to Myanmar, China and beyond, many themes resonate from those hours spent with a truly visionary machine and crew.

Bertrand Piccard puts it succinctly when he concluded our chat with one of his life’s tenets, “The pioneer is not always the one who succeeds, but the one who’s not afraid of failing”.

Godspeed, intrepid explorers.

Key specifications of the Solar Impulse 2
Capacity: A single pilot
Wingspan: 72 meters; larger than that of a Boeing 747-8
Weight: 2,300 Kg
Power: 17,000 solar cells–just 135 microns thin (the breadth of a human hair), integrated atop the wing surface, supplying four electric motors (17.5CV each)
Energy storage: 633 Kg of Lithium Ion batteries