It is an inevitable maxim that what goes up, must inevitably come back down. No aircraft can sustain flight indefinitely until now, perhaps. The Swiss private project Solar Impulse has developed an aircraft by the same name that can theoretically stay in the air indefinitely, with its only limitations being those of the pilot’s body and mind.
Solar Impulse I and Solar Impulse II are driven by four propeller engines, each one powered by its own lithium ion battery. These engines each put out roughly ten horsepower, making them roughly as powerful as the Wright Flyer’s engine! With a top speed of roughly 43 miles per hour, the Solar Impulse aims for endurance, not outright velocity. This is because Solar Impulse’s batteries are fed energy from the 17,000 solar cells covering the top of the aircraft’s wingspan, which reaches over 208 feet from tip to tip
Solar Impulse has a crew of one, situated inside a cockpit holding enough provisions to allow the pilot to live for a whole week onboard without needing to land. The cockpit, however, is unpressurized and unheated. This means that the pilot must wear an oxygen mask at high altitudes, and protective clothing to ward against the extreme temperatures Solar Impulse can encounter during flight, ranging from -40 to +40 degrees Celsius. During the average flight day, the aircraft climbs to 28,000 feet to harvest as much sunlight as possible, then descends to 3,000 feet during the night to conserve energy. The pilot must also sleep in 20-minute bursts to maintain awareness and control of the aircraft.
The most innovative aspect of Solar Impulse, however, is the four lithium-ion batteries that provide the engines with power. Each of these batteries contains 70 lithium-polymer cells, housed in a soft, thin, and flexible material custom-built for the aircraft. Produced by the Korean manufacturer Kokam, the batteries have also been treated with monofluoroethylene carbonate solvent to improve their energy density. Because batteries can lose efficiency when in extreme temperatures, the batteries are kept heated to 25 degrees Celsius to maintain performance.
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