Our recent visit to see the Solar Impulse aircraft while it visited Phoenix was a great opportunity for us to see some great engineering, share some thoughts on cleantech technology, and be reminded of the power of doing something big.
The Solar Impulse is a “movement challenging conventional thinking to inspire innovation, hope and action among citizens and policymakers.”
Innovation, hope and action about what?
How existing and future technologies can change the way we use energy around the world.
They are doing it by using existing technologies to build an airplane that operates entirely on power gathered from sunlight and that is capable of flying night and day over long distances. They are currently flying across the US, and are building a second generation aircraft that should be able to fly around the world.
You can learn the technical specifics about the plane here, and about the trip across the US here. It truly is an engineering marvel in how every inch of the aircraft is optimized to increase the glide ratio and decrease weight. The entire power train, from sunlight hitting the wings to the turning of the propellers has a total efficiency of 12%, which is pretty impressive if you consider the fact that the solar cells are only 22% efficient. The motors and the gearbox are, well, like a finely made Swiss machine.
Once we got over the technical aspects of the aircraft we started to listen to the pilot, Bertrand Piccard. You may recognize his name (no he is not Capt. Picard’s great-great-great grandfather… as far as we no). He was one of the Aeoronauts who made the first non-stop around the world balloon flight. He honestly and directly pointed out that there is no real practical application for this aircraft. It has the wingspan of a 747 and can only carry one person. What he did do is talk about using this project as a demonstration, and a catalyst, to get people around the world to understand that today we can all make small changes that will have a major impact on how much energy we consume, and where it comes from. From the solar cells to the motors to the high-efficiency LED landing lights, every inch of this plane underscores that message.
It also got me to thinking. We are often too focused on only doing projects that produce a tangible benefit, that generate direct income or fix a problem directly. If you look at history and when we made giant leaps forward, those leaps were usually started by someone doing something that may not have had a direct and practical application. But it inspired, it pushed the technology forward, and in the end it almost always improved the lives of everyone in some way.
Everywhere this plane goes it attracts big crowds. It’s image on TV and the Internet is shared by millions. It is changing the way people think about cleantech and showing that we have technology here now that can make a difference. Will we ever travel in a solar powered commercial airplane? No, probably not. But will this effort inspire someone to develop a more efficient motor and better composite material for wing spars? I am sure of it.
As we left the improvised hanger at Sky Harbor airport I felt that excitement I used to feel as a child, that challenge that pushed me to become an engineer in the first place. Solving difficult problems, using technology to make the world around us a better place, that is what it is all about. That is what makes what we do here at PADT so damn cool.