Swiss aviator and entrepreneur Bertrand Piccard, who made history earlier this year when he completed the world’s first solar-powered circumnavigation of the globe alongside co-founder and fellow pilot Andre Borschberg, believes that electric planes can carry passengers within a decade.
Speaking at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) airlines association in Geneva, Piccard remarked that the tumbling cost of clean tech will drive growth and innovation in a wealth of new areas, with electric, solar-powered commercial flights likely to be a reality sooner than many believe.
"In nine years and eight months, you’ll have 50 people traveling short-haul on electric planes," Piccard said. "Why nine years and eight months? Because since four months I’ve been saying it will be ten years. It will happen."
The Solar Impulse 2 (Si2) aircraft completed its circumnavigation of the globe in July, and since then Piccard has been spreading the gospel of solar-powered flight. And while the pilot is naturally cautious in his promotion of what is currently possible with solar aviation, he waxed lyrical on the technology’s ability to get better and cheaper as the months tick by.
"Five years ago everything that was clean tech was more expensive – that is not the case today," said Piccard. "If the aim is to be profitable and create jobs, then coal is out of business."
Borschberg, who was at the controls during the Si2’s longest, record-breaking leg between Japan and Hawaii, added that the Solar Impulse team will unveil their next project early in 2017.
Switzerland has become something of a hub for solar-powered flight, and it was in Payerne yesterday where the SolarStratos project was unveiled. Founded by Raphael Domjan, creator of PlanetSolar (the first solar-powered boat to circumnavigate the globe), SolarStratos will attempt to become the first solar-powered plane to penetrate the stratosphere.
The SolarStratos aircraft is 8.5 meters long, has a wingspan of 24.8 meters, weighs just 450 kilograms and is covered with 22 square meters of solar cells. Solar energy harvested by the cells is stored in a 20 kWh lithium-ion battery.
Unlike the Si2 aircraft, this plane is a tandem two-seater, but similarly to Solar Impulse it will have an unpressurized cabin, which means the pilot will have to wear an astronaut’s pressurized suit when he embarks on Mission SolarStratos. The mission will entail a two hour ascent into space, 15 minutes beyond the stratosphere, and a three hour descent.
The team hopes that by breaking the earth’s atmosphere, SolarStratos can demonstrate the power of renewable energy to smash previously held notions about what is possible.
"Our goal is to demonstrate that current technology offers us the possibility to achieve above and beyond what fossil fuels offer," said Domjan. "Electric and solar vehicles are among the major challenges of the 21st century. Our aircraft can fly at an altitude of 25,000 meters, and this opens the door to the possibility of electric and solar commercial aviation, close to space."
SolarStratos’ technical partner is Elektra-Solar GmbH.