Solar Impulse

Solar Impulse

The Solar Impulse is the prototype of a fuel-free aircraft that is designed to circle the globe on sunlight alone.

As environmental concerns increasingly shape the direction of technology, the future of aviation is no exception: scientists have been looking to replace fuel-guzzling aircraft with solar-powered variants, an innovation that, in addition to passing the green test, would also enable planes to linger in the sky for longer.

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It’s a future toward which the Pentagon, for one, has already made strides. If you remember, Darpa, the Pentagon’s advanced-research organization, recently developed an aircraft that could theoretically stay in the air for a decade. However, the aircraft is intended only for military purposes — so don’t expect to ever fly aboard Darpa’s Odysseus.

On the other hand, the Solar Impulse — a new Swiss solar-powered aircraft that was unveiled on Friday — could have commercial uses (though as of yet, it only has enough space for the pilot). As we reported last month, the aircraft, which doesn’t require a single drop of fuel, is designed to run on sunlight alone, as its four engines would be powered by electricity converted via the wings’ solar cells. Thanks to this design, the aircraft has the potential to stick around in the air for longer than your average airliner.

But whether it will work is still up in the air (ha ha): the team faces several technical challenges and is armed with only a limited budget that precludes their use of any cutting-edge technology. This financial constraint, then, was part of the reason for last week’s official unveiling, where the researchers asked for contributions — however small — to the project. Those interested in helping out can sponsor their their own individual solar cell.

The Solar Impulse is slated for a test run later this year, so we’ll find out soon enough how it fares. If all goes well, the Swiss will build a second version that they expect to pilot first across the Atlantic, and then across the entire world in 2012.