Flying aircraft without fuel

2010-07-11
VANGUARD Newspaper- Toyosi Ogunseye

LADIES and Gentlemen, welcome on board. We will be flying from Lagos to Abuja in this airplane that has no fuel but don‘t worry, our solar energy will guarantee you a safe trip.” No, it is not a scene from a science movie, aircraft that fly with solar energy are about to become a reality.



It is no doubt a very risky project. In a world that depends on fossil energies, the solar aeroplane is a paradox, almost a provocation.



It aims to have an airplane take off and fly autonomously, day and night, propelled uniquely by solar energy, right round the world without fuel or pollution, an unachievable goal without pushing back the current technological limits in all fields.



Bertrand Piccard, the initiator of the Solar Impulse Project, is willing to convince any doubting Thomas about the possibility of a solar-powered plane. Piccard, an aeronaut, who made the first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight in 1999, believes that the environment will be safer if the air pollutants emitted by planes are reduced to the barest minimum.



According to Piccard, the fumes from aircraft have contributed greatly to the changes in the environment globally because the gases from the planes such as carbon dioxide warm the earth.



Piccard, who is also a psychiatrist says, ”The solar airplane will be capable of taking off autonomously and maintaining itself in flight for several days without any fuel, and propelling itself solely by means of the energy collected by the solar cells mounted on its wings.”



Captain Victor Egonu, the head pilot of Arik Air, however does not share Piccard‘s enthusiasm. In his opinion, the solar plane is an adventure that may not work for commercial airlines.



Igomu says, ”I can‘t imagine airplanes flying with solar energy. I doubt if it will be at the commercial level. What is more realistic now is airplanes that don‘t use fossil fuels, and that is what Richard Branson is trying to do. But planes flying on solar energy, I don‘t think that will happen soon.”



Captain Koffi agrees with Egonu. He says, ”I‘m not an engineer but it depends on what they want to use the aircraft for. Do they want to use it for public transport that will carry weight? How are they going to come out with a battery? Are they going to mount the battries in the plane?



”If they want to use it for sports, it is fine but for carrying passengers? I honestly don‘t know about that because as a pilot, I always want to rely on how much fuel I have at any time.



”There is a possibility that it can work; but as a pilot, I can only speak of what I know. I don‘t think I want to rely on solar energy to fly. I don‘t think I want to rely on my engines being run by solar energy.”



The aviation industry seems to agree that the future of solar technology in commercial airplanes does not look bright, at least not in the near term.



According to the Huffington Post, not a single member of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association in America is currently researching or developing solar technology for planes.



Boeing, highly active on the sustainable aviation scene, has several employees in top positions at the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative and is a driving force behind innovation in fuel cell technology for airplanes.



But even they are leaving solar-powered flight alone, at least for now. ”Solar isn‘t something we‘re actively pursuing for commercial air travel – the energy density we would need from the solar cells simply isn‘t there, and the trade-offs are too great,” said Boeing press officer Terrance Scott recently to the paper.



The pilots are not the only ones who will need more conviction about these planes. Tinuke Ogundimu, a regular traveller, says that this new technology is a no-go area for her.



She says, ”Count me out of it. You will not find me on a solar plane. What if the solar energy is in form of gas leaks? What will then happen to the plane? We still have challenges with planes that use fuel and you are talking about solar planes.”



So how will the solar airplane work? Piccard says, ”The energy gathered during the day will have to serve not only to propel the plane, but also to recharge the batteries to ensure flying by night. It is essential for the pilot to approach each night with full batteries and economise available energy to the maximum, to be able to stay in the air until the next sunrise.



”For the solar panels, the day begins late and finishes early: one will only be able to count on about eight hours of ‘usable‘ light per day. Indeed, the lower the sun is on the horizon, the less efficient are its rays. A real count-down will begin each evening, therefore, and the suspense will not reach its peak until the end of the night.



”One will know the exact time at which the sun will again be able to ‘feed‘ the plane‘s cells and hope to reach this moment, before the batteries empty themselves completely.”



For such a project, there must be some challenges. Andre Borschberg, a Swiss Air Force pilot, who is Piccard´s partner, says, ”The problem with our society is that, despite all the grand talk about sustainable development, we are a long way from automatically thinking in terms of sustainability.



”Each hour, our world consumes around a million tons of petrol, not to mention other fossil fuels, spits back out into the atmosphere enough polluting emissions to disrupt the climate, and leaves half of the population stagnating in totally unacceptable living conditions.



”It certainly seems that if sustainable development has difficulty in becoming a reality, it is because it is still more often than not associated with crippling costs and a restriction of comfort or mobility. It is this idea that has to be corrected. Indeed, even if our behaviour risks destroying the planet, nobody seems ready to sacrifice his standard of living.



”Our grandchildren will no doubt end their days without petrol and they will then call us the ”plunderers of precious resources”, but as human beings, we are generally more motivated by our personal, short-term interest than by a long-term compassion for our peers or our environment.”



Confident and tenacious though they might be, Borschberg and Piccard are in no rush to make solar aviation commercially feasible.



For now, they say, ”The first step is to demonstrate that this is possible, then we can open up and develop applications. For us, it‘s important to show what we can do with this technology, so it‘s more a first step. It‘s more a symbol than an end product.”



The first flight of a solar-powered aircraft took place on Nov. 4, 1974, when the remotely controlled Sunrise II, designed by Robert J. Boucher of AstroFlight, Inc., flew following a launch from a catapult

 

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