The Solar Car Race: Will It Be A New Era of Energy?

In 2019, the world finally changed. While most of us were distracted by the news cycle and the chaos of daily life, a group of individuals quietly made history. The 2019 Solar Impulse Team began a round-the-world attempt to show that solar power was a viable alternative to fuel-guzzling aviation.

In an innovative blend of old-school adventure and new-era progressivism, Solar Impulse’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe using a single-seat solar-powered aircraft drew international interest and praise. The Solar Impulse team completed their trip on March 13, broadcasting the message that a zero-emission future was indeed possible, and that powered by the sun, no plane – or boat – can ever truly be out of reach.

The Quest Is On: Will Solar Power Revolutionize Travel?

While the aviation industry has made great strides towards sustainable and eco-friendly practices, it still accounts for roughly 12% of the world’s carbon footprint. In comparison, the air travel industry alone – which includes flights within and between countries – produced more than 8.8 million tons of CO2 in 2018 alone.

Put simply, the aviation industry has been unable to shift to sustainable practices due to a lack of affordable and practical alternatives. As a result, more and more individuals and organizations are actively supporting ground-based and waterborne travel ventures.

One such group is the Solar Impulse organization, a Swiss nonprofit that aims to accelerate the adoption of solar energy worldwide. Founded in 1987, the organization’s first project was a solar-powered flight, and since then, they have designed and built a whole fleet of solar-powered planes, helicopters, and boats. The group’s latest venture is the Solar Impulse 2, which is currently undergoing final testing prior to its scheduled inaugural flight in July 2019.

The Solar Impulse 2 is configured to carry a pilot and a co-pilot. It features a glass cockpit, fully integrated solar panels, and an electric motor, which allows it to fly without the use of any fossil fuels. The plane’s wings are covered in 21,600 solar cells, which provide it with unlimited energy. If the plane stays within its limited visibility range, it can stay aloft for up to 25 hours.

The Solar Impulse 2 will act as a testbed for a number of innovative technologies, and is therefore classified as a ‘technology demonstrator’. This allows the group to apply for one of two research exemptions that will facilitate the further development of these new technologies.

When completed, the Solar Impulse 2 will operate as a whole new class of solar-powered aircraft, capable of flying around the world without the need to stop and refuel. Its global travel itinerary will raise awareness about the environmental and social benefits of solar power, while its flight will broadcast the potential of clean energy to streamline flight plans and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Why Did Solar Power Struggle To Break Into The Aviation Industry?

For a while, it seemed like the solar power movement would forever be stuck in relative obscurity. The industry was dominated by fossil fuel companies that had a significant effect on global climate change, and the technology was too expensive and complex for the average person. That all changed in 2019 with the advent of mass-produced solar-powered planes.

On October 16, Swiss-based aircraft manufacturer SolarImpulse unveiled the SR20, an ultra-lightweight solar-powered aircraft that complies with the FAA’s commercial drone license. While this may not seem like a big deal (especially since drones are already popular in the retail industry and for movie producers), this was a major milestone for solar power in aviation. Designated as ‘SoloReign’, the prototype is the culmination of a decade’s worth of research and development by Solar Impulse. It was funded by the NGO ONE, alongside corporate sponsors and individual donors – including Richard Branson.’

Although more expensive than an average drone, the aircraft’s tiny 0.55 hectare (1.38 acre) solar array provides it with more than enough power to fly for several hours.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has licensed the SR20 for use in ‘high-altitude, long-endurance’ (HALEY) missions lasting up to an hour. HALEY stands for ‘High-Altitude, Long-Endurance’, exploring the outer limits of what is technically possible for aircraft. The SR20 is a perfect fit, as it can function effectively at extreme altitudes – reaching as high as 35000 feet (11143 meters) – beyond the reach of conventional aircraft. These conditions require precise navigation and a delicate balance of power, which the small drone is ideally suited to handle.

The advent of the Solar Impulse 2 and other cost-effective solar-powered airplanes marks a turning point for the industry. It’s fair to say that 2019 was the year that solar power took to the skies.

What Will The Future Of Solar Impulse Be?

It’s been a banner year for solar power, and the future of Solar Impulse looks incredibly promising. The organization has not only completed the first round-the-world flight, but they have also established themselves as a leading innovator in the field. Thanks to generous donors and sponsors, the group has the resources it needs to continue its work, which will undoubtedly lead to many more breakthroughs.

Solar Impulse is now in the process of redesigning the SR20 to accommodate a new pilot and a new co-pilot. The goal is to have the newly configured plane ready for a September 30, 2022, inaugural flight. This gives them plenty of time to make sure everything is checked off on their to-do list.

The next step is to begin raising funds for the next phase of their work. While they have succeeded in opening peoples’ minds to the possibilities of clean, green energy, they still need a bit of help to make it a reality.

As the world becomes more connected and aware of its environmental impact, individuals and organizations are seeking ways to better their impact. The interest in sustainable and eco-friendly travel is one area that promises to make a significant difference.

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