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Solar Impulse 2: Flying the flag for solar power
Paris (AFP) July 26, 2016

Solar Impulse 2 pilot Borschberg dares the impossible
Geneva (AFP) July 26, 2016 - Swiss pilot Andre Borschberg lives by the rallying cry of "making the impossible possible", and now he and his compatriot Bertrand Piccard have done just that.

The pair completed the first round-the-world flight with a fully sun-powered plane, Solar Impulse 2, when Piccard landed in Abu Dhabi on July 26 and wrapped up a journey that started 16 months ago.

During their odyssey, the two pilots alternated at the controls of the single-seat plane, with Borschberg in the cockpit for the longest leg of the journey.

With his 8,924-kilometre (5,545-mile) flight from Japan to Hawaii last year, which lasted 118 hours, or nearly five full days, he entered aviation history with the world's longest uninterrupted flight.

The 63-year-old smashed the previous record for the longest non-stop solo flight of 76 hours and 45 minutes set by US adventurer Steve Fossett in 2006.

It was far longer from Borschberg's first sky-shattering flight. He previously carried out the first-ever day and night flight in a solar aircraft, flying Solar Impulse 2's predecessor, Solar Impulse 1, for 26 hours straight in 2010.

Borschberg, also an entrepreneur with a passion for exploration, has described his Pacific crossing as "an interior journey" and an "extraordinary occasion to discover myself".

Alone in the cockpit, Borschberg could only sit or lie down and could sleep for no more than 20 minutes at a time, wearing a vibrating armband to wake him up in case of any anomaly.

He attributes his mental strength, which has been vital when flying solo for days on end, to yoga and meditation, which he usually practises in the garden of his home in Nyon, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

But he also practised in the cockpit of Solar Impulse 2, transforming his tiny bench into a yoga mat and using specialised postures custom-tailored for him by his personal yogi, Sanjeev Bhanot.

- 'Serendipity' -

Born in Zurich, Borschberg says he began dreaming of flying and of pushing boundaries as a young child.

He trained as a Swiss army pilot, learning to fly a range of jets and other aircraft, and in his spare time racked up other professional fixed wing and helicopter licences and practised aerobatics.

He also earned a degree in mechanics and thermodynamics from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, followed by master's degrees in management studies at MIT in the United States.

After working as a fighter pilot, Borschberg entered the civilian sphere in 1983, taking a job as a consultant for McKinsey out of Zurich, New York and Tokyo.

He later decided to go it alone, launching two internet start-ups and co-founding a company in the field of microprocessor memories.

Borschberg, a married father of three, says on his website that it was "serendipity" that brought him and Piccard together in 2003.

"When the request came... to help lead the seemingly impossible mission -- to create the plane and help fly it -- there was no saying no," he said.

The solar plane project offered a chance "to take part in a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and contribute to a new milestone in aviation".

The pair co-founded the Solar Impulse company, which Borschberg runs as the chief executive.

Despite his imposing stature and athletic build, he often appears overshadowed by his more famous associate, but Piccard has insisted they are both equally important to the project.

"We are friends. Andre takes more responsibility for the interior of the project, and I take the exterior," he told Hebdo magazine in 2014, insisting that "one without the other just does not work".

"My fame is not there to suffocate Andre, but to carry the project," Piccard said.

In its round-the-world tour, the plane Solar Impulse 2 has become a showcase for Sun-powered technology, featuring innovations which could have a bright commercial future.

What's new about it?

Solar Impulse 2 is not the first solar-powered plane, but unlike its predecessors it can store enough energy in its batteries to fly through the night.

"The plane has the wingspan of a 747 but only the weight of a car -- it had to be designed with the principle of efficiency first and foremost," said Adnan Amin, head of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

The breakthrough has been made possible by several technological advances by industry partners in the project.

Belgian chemical group Solvay, for instance, developed batteries which store more energy but weigh less, and composite material that contributed to making the aircraft lighter.

US solar panel maker Sunpower tweaked photovoltaic cells to enhance their electrical yield.

By putting these elements together, engineers produced an unprecedented combination of "what generates electricity, what stores it and materials which allow it to carry passengers," said Vincent Jacques Le Seigneur, head of the Paris-based Renewable Energy Observatory.

The plane has "the greatest power possible from a reduced surface area," said Cedric Philibert, an expert in renewal energy at the International Energy Agency (IEA).

What are its future uses?

The next step will be to harness the technical gains of Solar Impulse to improve power-to-weight efficiency in related fields.

In terms of maritime transport, there are already solar-powered craft: in 2012, the catamaran PlanetSolar made the first round-the-world trip by a vessel powered by solar energy. It was the biggest such boat ever built.

Solar energy is also used to power military drones, which can be remarkably similar in design to Solar Impulse 2.

Recent progress in electricity storage mean it is now feasible to have solar energy plants a long way from traditional power grids.

Solar passenger aircraft?

Solar Impulse 2 is nothing like a commercial airliner.

Its wings are as wide as those of a jumbo jet, the carbon fibre fuselage is much lighter, but the plane flies at a fraction of the speed of an airliner and can only carry one person.

"The surface area of (solar) cells needed to fly with only two people is the size of an Airbus or a Boeing. So for a commercial airliner it's unthinkable," acknowledged Vincent Jacques Le Seigneur.

The project's great merit has been to act as a test for lighter and cleaner 21st-century technology, said Philibert.

"It is possible, albeit extremely difficult, to do without" fossil fuels for flying, he said.

The aircraft industry is working more towards electric planes powered by batteries that can be recharged on the ground, such as the E-Fan, a small twin-prop developed by Airbus.

Efforts are also being made to develop planes which use less carbon-based fuel, or use biokerosene made from vegetable material. Air transport represents nearly three percent of global CO2 emissions.

How much solar energy in future?

At the end of 2015, solar power generated nearly 224 gigawatts of the world's electrical capacity, up 21 percent on 2014 thanks to improvements in solar panel technology and lowered costs.

Even so, solar energy only constitutes less than one percent of the world's output, dominated by fossil fuels of oil, coal and gas.

The IEA forecasts that solar capacity will grow to between 430-515 gigawatts by 2020.

Currently solar power is the cheapest form of energy in numerous countries situated on or near the equator, and by some yardsticks is profitable without subsidies. The costs of solar cells are expected to fall 59 percent by 2025, according to IRENA.







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