It’s a bird! It’s a Plane! No! It’s a Solar-Powered Plane!

Going non-stop around the world in a hot-air balloon may seem like the pinnacle of air travel, but circling the globe in a solar-powered plane might be even better. The only person who will really know is Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss psychiatrist who could be the first person to make the trip around the planet in both contraptions.

Yesterday the appropriately named Piccard, who made the first trip around the world in a hot-air balloon with his co-pilot, was awarded funding from Deutsche Bank to build the first solar aircraft. Bloomberg news reports that:

The record-breaking flight is planned for May 2011 along the Tropic of Cancer. Construction of a smaller prototype with a 61- meter wingspan will begin next month. The first test flights are scheduled for next year. The biggest challenge will be to develop an aircraft with batteries capable of storing enough solar energy to fly through the night, said Piccard.

Deutsche Bank covered 15 percent of the total cost of the project, which is called Solar Impulse. The donation reflects the company’s belief in supporting alternative energy technologies, said Joseph Ackermann, the chief executive officer of Deutsch Bank AG.

Air travel currently requires fossil fuels and in the United States, accounts for 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Center for Climate Change and Environmental Forecasting. Some day, solar-powered planes could help decrease our dependence on non-renewable resources and emissions.

Right now, the only thing standing in the way of everyone using solar-powered planes is the technology. According to the Solar Impulse website, the current wingspan of 80 feet will only allow one man to fly for 24 hours. But the team members seem hopeful:

But if we go back into history, when the great Wright brothers got their first plane to fly a distance of 200 meters in 1903, could they have imagined that 66 years later, two men would walk on the moon?

We’ll certainly be looking to the sunny skies in 2011 for a plane that’s soaring to new heights. And that’s not just a bunch of hot air.


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