If you are among those who believe that the environmental movement needs more upbeat and inspiring stories, and less gloom and doom, you will want to hear about Bertrand Piccard, Andre Borschberg and their solar-powered airplane, Solar Impulse.
Solar Impulse is an engineering marvel. Its has the wingspan of an Airbus A340 — it’s 208 feet across — yet weighs only about 3,500 pounds, about the same as mid-sized family car. Powered only by the light of the sun, which is captured in nearly 12,000 solar cells (built by US manufacturer SunPower) arrayed on the wings, it can reach an altitude of more than 27,000 feet and stay aloft for more than 24 hours, day and night. In May, Piccard and Borschberg, the Swiss adventurers who founded and built Solar Impulse will fly the plane from California to Virginia.
This is very cool. I’m not a tech geek, but I was intrigued enough to take the opportunity to meet Andre Borschberg when he visited Washington early this week. Piccard, who is the better known of the duo, comes from a family of explorers; his grandfather August was the first person to pilot a balloon into the stratosphere, and see the curvature of the earth with his own eyes. He’s a psychiatrist by profession. Borschberg, by contrast, is a 60-year-old MIT-trained engineer and entrepreneur, who led the team of engineers, physicists, software designers and who have spent nearly a decade (and about $120 million) designing and building several versions of the aircraft. A round-the-world trip is planned for 2015.
The technology behind the plane holds some lessons for all of us. The most important that the best kind of energy is the energy that’s never needed at all because products are designed with efficiency in mind. Solar Impulse is about 10 times lighter than a glider, Borschberg told me. Only a super lightweight and aerodynamically efficient aircraft could be flown for many hours by the energy that solar panels can deliver. That mindset could be applied to designing cars and buildings, he said.
“If we have the will to do it, we can certainly reduce energy consumption dramatically,” Borschberg told me. “Buildings are an obvious example. So many buildings have single glass (window) panes. You provide heat for the birds outside, but it’s not very economical.”
More broadly, Solar Impulse underscores the potential of breakthrough innovation. Neither Piccard nor Borschberg had ever designed a plane before. That meant they weren’t constrained in their thinking. “It kept us completely open to directions that others might have excluded because of past experience,” Borschberg said.
And yet, I couldn’t help wondering…Piccard and Borschberg raised a lot of money, and enlisted a long list of corporate supporters and put enormous brainpower and effort into building a solar plane…to do what, exactly?
The plane, after all, can’t carry passengers — there’s not even enough space for a restroom — or freight. Solar powered drones may be on the horizon, but the greenhouse gas emissions from drones aren’t a climate-change issue, at least not yet.
“Our goal is not to revolutionize aviation,” Borschberg told me. “Our goal is to revolution mindset.”
“So often now, when we talk about climate change, it’s about catastrophic consquences and negative messages,” he explained.
“Our goal is to inspire people to become pioneers, to explore and to try new things, to try the impossible,” he said. “We can and we should go out of our comfort zone, get out of our own certititudes.”
Or as Piccard has put it:
Solar Impulse was not built to carry passengers, but to carry messages. We want to show what can be achieved using clean technologies, to reduce our society’s dependence on fossil energies. What we can achieve in the air, anyone can do on the ground, in their everyday lives.
As a media event, Solar Impulse is already a success. When the plane flew to Le Bourget, an airport near Paris, it attracted 150,000 visitors. Piccard and Borschberg were profiled by Bob Simon on 60 Minutes (which you can watch here). The US trip will include stops along the way, live broadcasts to schools, and a media blitz.
But will the climate message come through? People will oooh and aahh but will they think? I hope so. The risk is that Solar Impulse will inadvertently send the message that solar power is a cool but expensive toy, mostly for the rich–as opposed to an increasingly affordable source of energy for all of us.
Here’s a video about Solar Impulse, provided by the company.