Solar Impulse first plane to fly without fuel

by Bruce Mason

Photo:  Solar Impulse flying high over river and fields

As you read this, one of the greatest adventures in the 21st century, if not in human history, is unfolding: a flight around the world, powered only by the sun. The objective is to attract the world and focus attention on preserving our planet and sustaining and improving our quality of life. It is intended to motivate global society – you and I – to tackle challenges by utilizing clean technologies.

If that doesn’t excite you, let’s put it in another scale and perspective: the carbon-fibre Solar Impulse 2 aircraft weighs less than a typical, ubiquitous SUV automobile yet it has a wingspan wider than the largest passenger plane. And it is well on its way to realizing its/our potential: flying perpetually, without any fuel or pollution.

portrait of Andre Borschberg
Andre Borschberg

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. It’s the revolutionary vision of Bertrand Piccard, who says, “This is absolutely unique. For the first time in history, we have an aeroplane that is flying with no fuel, day and night, demonstrating the incredible potential of clean technologies to reduce dependency on fossil fuel and to act on climate change.”

If you are rolling your eyes, keep them skyward and consider this: at 12 years in the making – including feasibility studies, design and construction – the Solar Impulse has simulated thousands of flights and set eight world records – ironically, three at night – including the longest manned, solar-powered flight at 26 hours. They are now attempting the first intercontinental flight in a piloted, solar-powered aircraft, travelling the greatest distance at the highest altitude.

These unprecedented demonstrations of how pioneering spirit, innovation and clean technologies can change the world have found immediate resonance with folks who get it. The list includes high-powered business partners such as the watch brand, Omega; German chemical giant, Solvay; international elevator and escalator provider, Schindler; and renewable and energy efficiency innovator, Abb. Other advocates include Altran, Google, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions, Swisscom, Moet Hennessy and host partner Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company, which is installing millions of power-producing mirrors while slashing oil production.

portrait of Bertrand Piccard
Bertrand Piccard

The Prince of Monaco is providing the mission control centre. Nicknamed “guardian angel,” it will house a small army of handpicked specialists in air traffic control, meteorology, math and engineering. In constant contact via satellite, it will monitor the sun, batteries and the best routes. Some of the finest minds and most famous names on the planet – Richard Branson, James Cameron, Paulo Coelho – will be among those watching, mesmerized, with fingers crossed.

Piccard, a doctor, psychiatrist, explorer and aeronaut, made the first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight, following in the tradition and footsteps of his family, who have utilized science to explore the stratosphere and the depths of the ocean. The key to his powerful message and current mission: “Adventure is not necessarily a spectacular deed, but rather an ‘extra-ordinary’ one, meaning something that pushes us outside our normal way of thinking and behaving. Something that forces us to leave the protective shell of our certainties, within which we act and react automatically.

“Adventure is a state of mind in the face of the unknown, a way of conceiving our existence as an experimental field, in which we have to develop our inner resources, climb our personal path of evolution and assimilate the ethical and moral values that we need to accompany our voyage.”

The crew will travel for days at a time, in an unheated, unpressurized cockpit, rivalling Lindbergh’s 1927 Trans-Atlantic trip in simplicity and significance. Their list of epic Solar Impulse adventures is already highlighted by solar flights across the Mediterranean and the US.

Piccard’s co-pilots include co-founder and engineer Andre Borschberg. Their re-designed and rigorously tested second solar plane is wider than a Boeing 747 (72m/236 feet), but weighs only 2,300 kilograms/5,000 pounds; the tops of the wings are covered with 17,000 solar cells, which drive four brush-less electric motors at speeds of up to 140km/hr. /90mph. A 633-kilogram/2,077-pound lithium battery keeps the plane’s propellers turning through the night. The only hitch preventing non-stop flight is the crew, which need to restock supplies and drop off waste materials. Autonomous solar-powered drones can stay aloft for weeks.

The flight will launch from Abu Dhabi by early March, stopping in 12 locations, including Chongqing, New York City and Southern Europe. Covering approximately 35,000 kilometres at speeds between 50 and 100km/hr., humankind’s first global solar flight is expected to be complete in 25 flight days, spread over five months, returning by late July or early August.

The feat is inspiring international imaginations, in advance of last-ditch, year-end, climate change talks in Paris. That’s if everything goes according to Solar Impulse’s plans, hopes and dreams. Corporate mainstream media will likely inform us only if something goes wrong, but you can follow Solar Impulse 2 at

Piccard hopes to “encourage each and every one of us to become pioneers in our own lives, in our ways of thinking and behaving… Major challenges await humanity,” he says. “They will open new horizons for science, but their objectives will be less to conquer unknown territories than to preserve the planet from today’s threats. The next adventures will therefore be humanitarian and medical (combating extreme poverty and containing new epidemics), political (improving our governance of the planet), spiritual (rediscovering profound and soundly-based values) and, of course, technological (providing durable answers to the threats menacing our environment.)”

Bon voyage to us all!

Clean Tech Expo

Hundreds of keen and curious folks interacted with 38 innovative companies at Surrey’s City Hall, for the first-ever local Clean Tech Expo, featuring everything from home energy efficiency, creative alternatives, existing transportation, wind power sources and high toxicity solvents.

Thirty-eight companies vied for the championship in the inaugural Greater Vancouver Clean Technology Championship in late January, in hopes of winning the $10,000 Vancity prize and a trophy designed by KPU’s School of Design. (See more at:

Common Ground congratulates the victor, TSO Logic. Their software, Application Aware Power Management, which can reduce waste up to 50%, works from a single server, with no impact on performance or costly changes to infrastructure. Founder and CEO Aaron Rallo says, “It’s fantastic to be recognized. Every day, servers in data centres throughout the world waste massive amounts of energy. Our software solution, focused on IT workload, is helping to not only save energy, but also reduce harmful emissions.”

Solaris Geothermal, FLO Innovations, Adrroit Technologies, Dew Point Technologies, and MegaHertz Power Systems were among the other finalists. In future articles, Common Ground will feature their work and others acting on climate change.

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