Jul 5, 2015: Solar Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Solar Impulse Flies For Five Days Straight

The Solar Impulse lands in Hawaii (with help from a couple of bicycles) after five days and nights in the air.

The Solar Impulse lands in Hawaii (with help from a couple of bicycles) after five days and nights in the air.

As reported in this BBC Article, the Swiss designed “Solar Impulse” zero-fuel plane touched down yesterday in Hawaii after a record-shattering 118 hours of non-stop flight from Japan. The previous record for a solo un-refueled flight was only 76 hours and the Solar Impulse also broke records for the longest distance covered and longest time in the air for a solar powered plane.

It’s amazing to think that this plane, which has a 72m wingspan covered with 17,000 solar cells, is capable of generating enough power to not only stay in the air during the day, but also to charge its batteries with enough power to keep it aloft for the entire night as well. Theoretically it could fly forever except that, because it has a such a huge wingspan (longer than a Jumbo Jet’s), flies so slowly (top speed 140km/h) and is so light (only 2,300kg), it is highly vulnerable to bad weather and turbulence. In fact it had to wait in Japan for a month before a window of good weather opened up to allow it to continue on it’s round-the-world journey which began in Abu Dhabi on March 9th.

She’s not a beautiful craft and, judging by the photo above from the BBC Article, the landing speed is slow enough to allow the ground crew to keep up on bicycles. It reminds me of an old joke about a Texan bragging to an Irishman that he could get on a train in Houston, ride the train all day and all the next night and all the following day, get off in El Paso and he’d still be in Texas. To which the Irishman replies, “to be sure and we have some slow trains in Ireland too.”

Nevertheless, this is a remarkable achievement from the Solar Impulse team. As co-founder Bertrand Piccard said upon the plane’s arrival in Hawaii…

‘Andre’s flight was longer than all the other single-seater flights that had fuel. That’s an incredible message. Now you can fly longer with no fuel than you can with fuel. So, what Andre has done is not only a historic first for aviation, it’s a historic first for renewable energies. And this is why we are doing this project.’

Indian Railways Experimenting with Solar Power

Indian Railways has begun trialing railway carriages with solar panels mounted on the roof to run the interior lighting and air-conditioning. According to this article from cleantechnica.com this work is usually done by a diesel generator and “a train using solar power can reduce diesel consumption by up to 90,000 litres per year and also bring down the carbon dioxide emission by over 200 tonnes.” … Not bad!

It’s not nearly as impressive an achievement as that of the Solar Impulse but it does help to make for a great headline for this week’s Newsletter. Plus, since trains are powered by electricity in the form of a diesel electric motor, it seems to me that, if every locomotive and train car was covered with solar panels, the electricity could be directed to powering the train and not just its lights and air-conditioning. On a global scale this could lead to a massive reduction in fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions from trains.

Dutch Solar Powered ‘Family Car’

The Dutch Eindhoven University of Technology's Stella-Lux 'Energy Positive Family Car' is capable of making more energy than is required to run it and will be here in Australia in October for the World Solar Challenge

The Dutch Eindhoven University of Technology’s Stella-Lux ‘Energy Positive Family Car’ is capable of making more energy than is required to run it and will be here in Australia in October for the World Solar Challenge

I absolutely love the idea of a car that can generate more energy than it uses. One of our original goals for the Greeny Flat was to make a house that could do the same. It’s clearly MUCH easier to be energy positive with a house than with a car by virtue of the fact that we have a large roof area for solar panels and no weight restrictions. One of the main reasons the Stella Lux looks so odd is that it is designed to be both highly-aerodynamic AND to provide maximum roof area for solar panels.

My favourite thing about the Stella Lux is that, according to the Gizmag article, the team’s goal ‘is to show that such a car can also be sexy and user-friendly.’

‘Sexy’ is not the first word that comes to my mind when I look at the photo above… oh well, I always thought the Dutch were a bit different, and good on them for getting us a step closer to having our own energy positive car one day to go with our energy positive house.

It would be fun to go to Adelaide in October for the finish of the World Solar Challenge… I just wish I had an energy positive car to get me there.

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