Solar Impulse in Flight

© Solar Impulse | Revillard |

Breaking Energy spoke to André Borschberg, pilot of the solar-powered plane Solar Impulse, while he was in-flight on Friday about what his demonstration project may mean for the future of solar aviation.

Borschberg, Solar Impulse project co-founder and chief executive, explained that using solar energy to power flight is something that captures the imagination. “It really creates enthusiasts about the possibilities”, he said.

If people can trust that solar power can keep a plane in the air, they may be more willing to consider a whole range of other new and unconventional ways to replace fossil fuels with renewables, he said.

And a solar-powered plane is certainly attention-grabbing. “What we’ve seen since we arrived in the US is that aviation makes people read,” he said.

How Does It Compare to Traditional Flight?

“The first big difference is that it generates energy,” Borschberg said. “That’s an immense difference and a fantastic feeling.’

While solar flight remains at the very early stages of development – with no guarantee that it will be developed in a way that suits commercial applications – it also upends the traditional notion of an airplane’s range being limited by how much fuel it can carry in its tanks.

He added that it handles differently from a typical aircraft, due in part to its light weight. The Solar Impulse has the wing span of an Airbus 340 but only weighs 1,600 kg, or less than 2 tons. The A340-600 can carry  more than 350 passengers, and weighs roughly 250 tons with no added fuel weight.

What Are its Practical Applications?

One Breaking Energy reader made a comment in response to a previous story about the Solar Impulse that solar flight is not suitable for moving passengers or freight. And Borschberg concurred that the technology employed to keep the Solar Impulse in flight would not have that capability.

“Short-term, we will not fly big commercial airplanes using this technology,” he said.

But he added that solar aviation technology will develop, possibly in ways that are difficult to imagine now.  And he stressed that the Wright Brothers, at least initially, did not consider Trans-Atlantic flight to be a realistic possibility.