Driven by Sunshine – What’s the Future for Solar Transport?
With daily news on declining oil reserves, shrinking rainforests from deforestation, not to mention the effect burning fossil fuels continues to have on the health of our planet, putting the magnificent energy source shining above us to good use, seems worthy of exploration.
Solely by Solar
That’s exactly what Swiss explorers, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, have tried to do in their maiden round the world voyage in Solar Impulse 2, a plane powered solely by the sun.
Piccard and Borschberg, pilots and founders of Solar Impulse 2, started their adventurous campaign in March 2015 leaving from Abu Dhabi to circumnavigate the globe using only renewable energy sources – their aim is to demonstrate that the use of clean technologies for transportation is in fact possible, despite challenging opinions.
Solar Impulse 2 is the first airplane with the endurance required to fly long distances, through day and night, without a single drop of fuel. More than 17,000 solar cells are built into the plane’s wings, which measure 72 metres – longer than a Boeing 747 and almost at the length of an Airbus A380 superjumbo.
This technology took 12 years of hard research, testing and development by the team of Solar Impulse, which consists of around 90 experts including engineers, technicians and navigation specialists. Over 100 businesses financially support and advise on the project too, including Sir Richard Branson.
On July 3 Solar Impulse 2 landed safely in Hawaii after completing the 7th and most ambitious leg of the journey from China, comprising of 5 days and nights. That's 118 hours, non-stop flying! Borschberg was at the controls the entire flight and was only able to use the autopilot for short durations to enable him to nap.
This flight alone has marked a significant milestone in aviation history. However, legislation is still necessary to move global economies away from polluting technologies to a greener alternative.
Solar Aviation Developments
Solar Impulse, the original model, proved that it was capable of storing enough power in lithium batteries during daytime hours to continue flying through the night. Subsequently, it succeeded a 26-hour flight in 2010.
There have been a number of other landmarks in solar aviation history. Sunseeker 1 crossed America in the summer of 1990, Sunseeker 2, which completed a number of successful aviation feats in Europe in 2009, including the first Alps crossing and Sunseeker Duo, the first two seater solar powered aircraft. These are to name a few.
What about On The Road?
Well, we have the electric car, which is being incentivised across the globe. This isn’t the first time that considerations have been made into low-emissions land transportation though. The first cars were powered by steam before being replaced with the combustion engine that was more reliable and powerful. However, the invention of electric vehicles can actually be traced back to the 1830’s, even though the first recorded model was built in 1884.
Taking the concept of electric cars into the realm of renewable energy, charging stations can also be successfully powered by the sun. Just recently San Francisco installed three charging stations in the city where electric vehicle owners can “re-charge”, free of charge. This campaign is from the organisation Charge Across Town, which received grant funding to launch this eco-friendly initiative.
Solar Roads and Charging Roads – The Future
The real innovations involving transportation are expected to involve infrastructure. Solar Roadways is a technology being explored by founders Scott and Julie Bradshaw, whereby solar cells are secured below glass underneath the road surface. As with all new creations, design flaws have to be ironed out to ensure the road surface is opaque enough to let light through to charge the solar cells, yet not emit too much glare for drivers.
Freedom from Dependence on Fossil Fuels
It appears that the future of solar transportation is certainly heading in the right direction. The technology is clearly available and has been demonstrated to be successful both in the air and on the land. Coupled with continued research and development to take concepts to the next level, it now also requires public enthusiasm in favour of technologies that will enable freedom from dependence on fossil fuels.
What discussions could your science class have to explore new ways to harness the power of the sun?