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Could this solar-powered plane allow us to fly without fuel?

A 13-year-old project, privately funded in Switzerland, has seen a plane flying across America – by day AND by night.

Solar Impulse, piloted by André Borschberg, takes flight during the second leg of its 2013 Across America mission from Harbor International Airport in Phoenix.
Solar Impulse, piloted by André Borschberg, takes flight during the second leg of its 2013 Across America mission from Harbor International Airport in Phoenix.
Image: AP Photo/Matt York, File

THE PLANE PARKED outside the airport looks more like a giant exotic insect or maybe an outsized balsa wood toy airplane.

When it’s in flight, there’s no roar of jet engines. It’s strangely quiet. And as it criss-crosses America, the spindly plane doesn’t use a drop of fuel. Day, and even night, it flies on the power of the sun.

And it’s that fact that has the US energy secretary, and the plane’s two pilots and fans around the world, so excited.

The one-man craft called Solar Impulse has been flying across the United States in short hops, as part of a 13-year privately funded European project that is expected to cost around €110 million.

Ernest Moniz, who heads the US Department of Energy, praised the plane at a news conference at Dulles International airport in Washington this week, where the plane had in the dark on Sunday morning. Moniz said it highlighted a cleaner energy future for the nation.

“It’s also a poetic project,” said Bertrand Piccard, one of the pilots taking turns flying this aircraft across the United States. “It’s about flying with the sun. It’s about flying with no fuel.”

It’s not that the experimental European plane is going to change the way the rest of us fly, Moniz said – but it may change the way we drive and the buildings we live in sooner than we think.

Andre Borschberg, one of two pilots of the Solar Impulse plane, poses for a portrait in the cockpit of the purely solar-powered plane in Chantilly, Virginia. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The impact isn’t in the air – but on the ground

The high-flying lightweight technology will pay off on the ground far more readily than in the air. This project should lead to cleaner appliances, greener cars and more energy-efficient building, said Solar Impulse CEO Andre Borschberg, who also is one of the pilots.

In an in-flight interview – conducted while he was over Indiana at 30,000 feet and controlling the plane with just two fingers – Borschberg said the experiment isn’t about aviation being cleaner. Aeroplanes only produce 3 per cent of the world’s heat-trapping gases, he said.

“The potential is on the ground, the potential is not in aviation,” he said in the interview with The Associated Press. “On the ground, the potential is huge and is readily available.”

Perhaps as early as 2015, an updated version of this solar plane will be flown around the world. This year’s practice runs have this prototype flying from San Francisco to New York with five stops in between.

Most recently, the plane flew from St. Louis to Cincinnati and then suburban Washington. In a couple of weeks, it will make the final leg, landing in New York City. Last year, the same plane flew from Switzerland to Morocco.

When he first came up with the idea a decade ago, Borschberg said he was told by experts: “Your project is impossible.”

Now instead, Moniz said, Solar Impulse is highlighting four high-tech green energy fields that his office is trying to promote: solar power itself, better batteries that allowed Solar Impulse to fly at night, lightweight materials and integrating everything together.

They’ll pay off on the ground quickly, Moniz said. Take the lightweight carbon fibre and lighter solar cells: once applied to rooftop solar panels, that will bring down costs for houses because much of the problem currently is the size and weight of the panels.

Solar Impulse carries more than 11,000 solar cells — 10,746 of them on the long wing that stretches 208 feet. Although it has the wingspan of a jumbo jet, the entire plane weighs just 3,500 pounds, the size of a small car.

Read: Living in a remote part of the world? Google wants to get internet access to you with balloons

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