Solar Impulse brings numerous technologies together to serve a vision: an aircraft, which would fly nonstop around the world without fuel. Founded by two Swiss pioneers, this project’s fascinating draw comes both from the spirit of exploration and science of the Piccard family, which produced Chairman Bertrand Piccard, and the managerial, technophile and humanist strand of its CEO, André Borschberg.
The first prototype, Solar Impulse 1 (Si1), came to light in 2009 and completed its maiden night flight in 2010, demonstrating the validity of clean and renewable technologies. With the support of several major companies and strong partnerships, the project solidified and a series of successes ensued: after flights in Europe, Morocco and United States. In 2015, Solar Impulse 2 (Si2) began its fly around the world in Abu Dhabi, its departure point.
Solar Impulse gets its energy from the Sun and must be able to fly for 5 days – and nights! – to cross over oceans unassisted. And doing so will mean a genuine test bench for clean technologies. 269.5 m² of solar panels covering the wings generate energy. Charged during the day, the batteries take over when darkness falls. In order to navigate during 14 hours of darkness, the flight’s cycle was studied and adapted: Solar Impulse can climb as high as 9,000 meters during the light phase and thus gain 4 hours of gliding, with the engines throttled down.
Only when the plane reaches an altitude of 1,500 meters does it begin to use the energy stored during the day. Lastly, it is impossible to talk about Solar Impulse without mentioning its feather weight: 2.3 tons fully loaded, which is the weight of a van! Yet it has to be robust in the face of wind, rain, pressure, light, and temperature. The cockpit was a real challenge as well. Its unheated and non-pressurized 3.8 m³ must house instruments, provisions, and survival gear while providing the pilot a functional and ergonomic living space, since he may be spending up to 6 days there!
A partner of choice for the aviation industry for many decades, it was natural that the company became official supporter of the project in 2013, via Air Liquide advanced Business & Technologies. Air Liquide provides several thousand liters of aeronautic oxygen; a vital oxygen for the pilot at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters. Very pure, like its therapeutic counterpart, it is also very dry. Usually a disadvantage – because dry oxygen is less comfortable – here this is an advantage. There is no risk of freezing despite the conditions that may prevail in the Si2 cockpit.
After a break of several months in Hawaii, Solar Impulse continued its journey across the United States and the Atlantic ocean, before flying over the Mediterranean sea. The 17th and last flight came to Bertrand Piccard who left Cairo (Egypt) to join Abu Dhabi. Solar Impulse has completed its world tour July 26, 2016 having traveled more than 40,000 km.
Air Liquide has provided aviation oxygen loading and supplied all the relays along the route. The team is proud to have taken part in such an adventure.