Ten years ago, investors told pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg that their plan to build a solar-powered airplane would never work. It would never fly.
Yet on Sunday Piccard successfully landed the Solar Impulse airplane at Washington Dulles International Airport, the fourth leg of a 45-day coast-to-coast trip across the United States, in a solar-powered aircraft with the wingspan of a Boeing 747 that uses no jet fuel to fly.
The plane is powered by 12,000 solar cells resting beneath the solar panels on the upper part of the wings. By flying, it actually gains more power, because the cells capture the sun's energy and transform it into electricity, simultaneously powering the planes for propeller-equipped engines while also storing excess energy in the planes' lithium-ion batteries. That is what enabled Piccard to land the aircraft shortly after midnight in the nation's capital.
"We wanted to land at night, how else could we prove that we could fly without solar energy?" said Piccard, during a press conference Monday at the National Air and Space Museum, where the two pilots were welcomed to the nation's capital by U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz.
Although the Solar Impulse team wasn't welcomed to the nation's capital with the same fanfare that Charles Lindbergh received in Paris after completing his transatlantic flight, they have pulled off an aviation first—a zero-fuel cross-country trip, that started in San Francisco and ends next week in New York City.
Most of their thunder this week was overshadowed by the 50th annual Paris Air Show, where manufacturing giants Airbus and Boeing racked up multi-billion dollar orders for passenger aircraft that are being promoted as much more fuel efficient than current generation commercial airplanes.
But hopefully the aviation world in Paris was aware of Solar Impulse's arrival to Washington D.C., because the airlines purchasing those planes can all agree that jet fuel is one of their top operating expenses. According to Airlines for America, in 2012, airlines based in the U.S. spent nearly $12 billion on fuel, and listed it as their largest operating expense; thus, a solar-powered airplane flying coast to coast without a drop of fuel should be inspiration for more innovation by the industry to reduce fuel burn, engine noise and aircraft emissions.
Neither Borschberg or Piccard believe that the system integration used to power the Solar Impulse aircraft could be incorporated into commercial aircraft for use on commercial flights any time soon, but the Swiss innovators are looking to promote the use of clean technologies, not only in aviation, but in other industries as well.
Their goal is to get researchers, businesses and governments to start collaborating more on clean technologies, looking at ways to reduce emissions through innovations such as the system integration between solar cells, aircraft engines, avionics and aerodynamic structures featured on their airplane.
And the project goes behind just the two pilots, as the Solar Impulse team includes 80 different companies across different industries, from European Chemical Group Solvay, who contributed specialty polymers to the plane to increase energy density in the plane’s lithium-ion batteries, to Swiss luxury watchmaker Omega, who provided the custom-built Omega Instrument for the cockpit, to indicate flight path and lateral drift for the pilot.
That's why they chose America to perform their cross-country flight, with a very important stop at Dulles Airport, which Piccard called the most important leg of the entire trip.
Soon after landing they were welcomed to the nation’s capital by Moniz and the media, and also participated in a round table discussion about technological innovation and entrepreneurship on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning. The FAA--with air traffic control support and also a mention of Solar Impulse in the June edition of its general aviation safety briefing--also enthusiastically supported the project.
"Its about flying in the sun, its about flying with no fuel, its about continuing the history of aviation, of the pioneers who were before us and who inspired us," said Borschberg. "The type of energy collections we have, batteries, solar cells, insulated materials, the aerodynamic structures. All of this could be used everywhere. If the technologies of Solar Impulse were massively used in the world, we could already today, divide by two the energy consumption of human kind, and produce half of the rest with renewable sources."