Solar Impulse gets funding boost for round-the-world plan

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Solar Impulse, the solar-powered aircraft project, received a boost to its bid to fly round the world in 2015 using only solar power thanks to an increased financial commitment from Bayer MaterialScience.

Bayer, an official partner whose contribution to date includes work by about 30 engineers to develop many of the ultra-lightweight materials that have resulted in an aircraft with the wingspan of an A320 but the mass of a family car, will continue its technical support as well as provide more cash, it announced on 28 September.

Speaking at Solar Impulse's headquarters in Payerne, Switzerland, alongside project founders and pilots André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, Bayer MaterialScience chief executive Patrick Thomas said Bayer's involvement in meeting the extreme performance challenges Borschberg and Piccard have been laying down since 2003 has resulted in some new materials for use by Solar Impulse and many for use in industries ranging from automotive to construction.

 

The project is entering a new phase. Having demonstrated the ability to fly for 24h using only solar power, including an intercontinental trip to Morocco earlier this year and a visit to the 2011 Paris air show, the team must build a larger aircraft capable of circumnavigating the earth in legs of five to six days.

Such a journey will place much greater demands on the pilot, so a larger cockpit is needed. But since overall aircraft size can grow only marginally before it becomes impossible to control, the materials used to build the second aircraft will have to be dramatically lighter, and energy management must be improved.

One example will be deployed in the cockpit, which currently weighs 19kg (42lb). In the second machine, the surface area of the cockpit will be three time as large, but carbon nanotube-reinforced carbonfibre structures and a lighter polycarbonate windscreen, will hold mass below 30kg.

The plan is to build the second aircraft at Solar Impulse's engineering workshop in Zurich, conduct test flights from Payerne in 2014, and make the round-the-world flight in 2015.

Ultimately, Solar Impulse is more about demonstrating potential for energy savings using existing technologies than it is about aviation. As Piccard puts it, what can be achieved in a flying machine should be much easier on the ground, where 97% of the world's CO2 emissions are generated. The real goal of Solar Impulse, he says, is "to create positive emotions around new technologies".

Many weight-saving materials pioneered by Solar Impulse will find their way into aircraft, but Thomas expects the automotive industry to be a more immediate beneficiary. However, the project is improving one key component shared by civil and military air operations - the pilot. Flying a single-seater for 24h or longer demands endurance well beyond that expected of airline or transport pilots, and Solar Impulse has been working on self-hypnosis and micronapping techniques to allow full and partial rest.

Piccard, a doctor, believes these techniques could improve safety in commercial airline operations and he will share them next year when he undergoes a 72h simulation flight, live online.

"That will be a three-day training course for anyone who would like to learn," he promises.