Fuel-Free Airplane Unveiled

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The initial prototype of Solar Impulse, a solar-powered aircraft that may fly around the world without fuel in 2011, was unveiled last week in Switzerland by project organizer Bertrand Piccard. The first aircraft has a wingspan of almost 200 feet and will be used to test the basic science behind the project. If all goes well, it will fly nonstop for 36 hours, using solar power for its electric motors and charging batteries by day and using the stored energy at night. As formidable as that challenge might be, the ultimate goal is much more ambitious. By 2011, Piccard hopes a second aircraft will embark on a month-long (at about 30 mph) flight around the world on sun power alone. Not only does the aircraft have to stay in the air, it also has to supply a pressurized cabin for the pilot and carry enough to keep him alive for the month. “The Solar Impulse engineers have therefore had to develop a totally new type of airplane, made possible by innovative technologies, in which everything is new, everything is different: aerodynamics, structure, manufacturing methods, type of propulsion, flight domain…” says the project’s Web site.