In May 2013 a solar powered aircraft called Solar Impulse completed the first leg of a flight across the USA, from East Coast to West. The Solar Impulse team are hoping to be the first solar powered cross-continent flight.
Solar Impulse has the wingspan of an Airbus A340 (63 metres), with 12 000 solar panels on the wings which power the aircraft.
The aircraft’s first 2 legs have been flight times of 18 and 21 hours. Solar Impulse is so effective at harnessing and storing solar power it can even fly at night.
Whilst solar powered commercial flights seem a long way in the future (Solar Impulse is planning its first round-the-world flight for 2015), it’s clear that private aviation is looking for greener alternatives including biofuels (here’s my post on biofuels use in private aviation)
In private aviation the cost of fuel can be up to 50% of the cost to charter a private jet.
So even if the aircraft was not fully solar powered it would represent a huge change in private jet pricing.
What’s the potential for a solar powered future in private aviation?
Although Solar Impulse has a huge wingspan, the aircraft can only carry 1 pilot and the maximum speed is 70km/h (compared to the Citation XL which flies at a top cruise speed of 777 km/h).
Solar powered technology will have to move on significantly for solar powered flights to take-off in general and private aviation but it is fantastic to see these big steps forward in green aviation.