Swiss pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg made history recently by completing an arduous, around-the-world journey in Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered plane. They began the first leg of the 17-segment flight from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on March 9, 2015, and completed the expedition in the middle of the night on July 26, 2016, back in Abu Dhabi. The entire journey was completed without using a drop of fuel, despite numerous unexpected delays and hurdles along the nearly two-year journey. Piccard and Borschberg broke eight world records as they completed the first emissions-free, around-the-world trip, a momentous milestone for clean technology.

Solar Impulse 2 is the first zero-fuel aircraft to fly day and night, cross major oceans, and is now the first zero-fuel plane to have flown around the world. While this journey may not revolutionize commercial air travel, it opens the door for innovation to come. After the journey came to an end, Piccard stated, “If an airplane has succeeded to fly day and night without fuel, then we can power our world on clean energy.” The two innovators have dedicated more than a decade to proving that clean energy technology is more than just possible: it is crucial for our future.

The two pilots and their Swiss engineering team began developing the plane in the early 2000s, but a family history of explorers sparked Piccard’s adventurous streak long before Solar Impulse 2. Piccard’s grandfather completed the first flight in the stratosphere and his father holds the deep-sea diving record. In 1999, Piccard and partner Brian Jones completed the first nonstop, around-the-world hot air balloon journey. Piccard and Jones left Switzerland with 33 tons of liquid propane to fuel the balloon, barely making it around the world without stopping to refuel. It was this daunting fuel dependency that led Piccard to his next big idea: a flight for which fuel would no longer be a limitation.

The Swiss team first designed the original Solar Impulse in 2003, and the world's first solar-powered plane was then used as the prototype for Solar Impulse 2. The team made a number of adjustments to the second model, in order to create an aircraft better suited for longer flights. They did this by lengthening the wingspan (to 236 feet—longer than a Boeing 747's!), and by including approximately 50 percent more photovoltaic solar cells, a bigger propeller, and twice the capacity for battery storage. In 2015, the duo was ready to begin their around-the-world trip.

On the eighth consecutive leg of the trip in June 2015, Solar Impulse 2 flew from Japan to Hawaii. During this longest leg of the entire trip, the flight broke a number of world records, but the plane was also damaged as a result of overheating. The needed repairs led to a nine-month delay in the travelers’ journey. On April 21, one year later, Piccard flew the plane from Hawaii to San Francisco, where the plane finally began to make its way across the United States and eventually back to Abu Dhabi, concluding the nearly two-year, fuel-free journey.

While Piccard and Borschberg have completed their journey, their work is far from over. Moving forward, the pilots are creating an International Committee of Clean Technology (ICCT) to encourage renewable energy and energy efficiency developments. “Until recently, protecting the environment was expensive and threatened our society’s comfort, mobility and growth. Today, thanks to modern clean technologies, the energy consumption of the world, and therefore its CO2 emissions, could be divided by two, while creating jobs and enhancing profits,” said Piccard. Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg hope their flight around the world without any fuel will inspire other clean energy feats and accelerate the transition to a carbon-free economy.


Author: Caitlin Majewski