Solar Plane: Could Solar-Powered Commercial Flight Be Just Over The Horizon? [VIDEO]

By Philip Ross on May 3, 2013 3:16 PM EDT

solar plane
The Solar Impulse, a solar-powered, one-man aircraft, took off early Friday morning from San Francisco Bay for its maiden cross-country tour. (Photo: Reuters/Stephen Lam)

A solar plane embarked on its maiden flight Friday morning, taking off from San Francisco Bay and heading for Phoenix, Ariz., the first stop in an inaugural cross-country journey which will end in New York City.

Reuters reports that the solar plane, named the Solar Impulse, crooned slightly as it departed Moffett Field, a civil-military airport on the south end of San Francisco, just after sunrise. The solar plane's 12,000 solar cells, which soak up sunlight and convert it into energy, will propel the aircraft for the entire length of the journey; the plane can even fly after dark on solar energy it stores in a battery that has about the same capacity as a Tesla electric car, according to Reuters.

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While the debut cross-country journey of Solar Impulse is a promising step towards finding alternative methods of flight, the solar plane won't be setting any speed records. Its engines put out only about 10 horsepower, about the same amount as the Wright brothers' first planes (the average horsepower of a large jet today is about 70,000), making its max speed about 40 mph. The approximately 700 mile trip between San Francisco and Phoenix will take about 15 to 20 hour.

The accommodations are also far from first-class. According to the Washington Post, the single-seat cockpit is unheated and unpressurized, meaning the pilot, Andre Borschberg, the co-founder of the project, will have to endure extreme hot and cold temperature changes as well as wear an oxygen mask.

The plane is made of a carbon fiber frame and a sheer carbon wrapping. The New York Times reports that the aircraft is tough enough to reach altitudes of 30,000 feet, but fragile enough to poke a hole in with your finger.

Here's the plane flight, via YouTube:

"The point of this is to underscore how far we've come and how far we need to go to develop alternative sources of power, particularly solar energy," Bob van der Linden, chairman of the aeronautics department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, told the Washington Post. "This will help push the technology along."

The project began in 2003 with a 10-year budget of 90 million euros ($112 million) and has involved engineers from Swiss escalator maker Schindler and research aid from Belgian chemicals group Solvay -- backers who want to test new materials and technologies while also gaining brand recognition.

The idea of building the solar-powered aircraft was first conceived in 2003 after Bertrand Piccard, the guy who became famous in 1999 for winning a competition to fly non-stop around the world in a hot air balloon, was shocked at how much gas his hot air balloon trip burned up.

The project was funded by $112 million over 10 years and involved Swiss and Belgian engineers.

Last week, another solar electric plane took flight in Germany, this one a two-seater with the ability to fly for about 12 hours at a time. According to the New York Times, some of the technologies developed for the solar planes, including the special batteries used for storing solar energy and the foam that insulates them, are ready for commercial use.

Even with the developments in solar-powered aircraft technology, any broad commercial use is still a long ways off, according to van der Linden.

Read more from iScience Times:

'Fire Ice': How Close Is Japan To Unlocking World's Next Major Energy Source?

Which Green Energy Source Is Responsible for Global Warming?

Europe Meets to Discuss Progress in Energy Research and Development

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