First solar-powered airplane unveiled in Switzerland

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It has the wingspan of a Boeing 747 but weighs less than a small car – and could be the first plane to fly around the world powered entirely by the sun.

This is the Solar Impulse, unveiled in Switzerland, which its inventor hopes will revolutionise air travel and reduce its impact on the environment…

Bertrand Piccard and co-pilot Andre Borschberg are set to begin tests on the solar powered plane.

They are planning to prove the airplane’s viability with a round-the-world trip, although the scheduled take-off date, 2012, suggests they are in for a few more turbulent test flights.

He said: ‘Yesterday it was a dream, today it is an airplane, tomorrow it will be an ambassador of renewable energies…’

The plane, part of a £70million project, will fly day and night using almost 12,000 solar cells, rechargeable lithium batteries and four electric motors.

Unlike the first nonstop round-the-globe balloon trip which Mr Piccard co-piloted in 1999, the solar flight will have to make stops to allow for pilots to switch over and stretch after long periods in the cramped cockpit…

Mr Piccard says the plane should also serve as an inspiration for inventors and manufacturers of everyday machines and appliances.

Sounds inspiring to me all right. And an interesting looking craft to boot.

My worries come from working with a few aeronautics engineers. They get stuck in to the conflict between strength and weight – down to some scary small margins for error AFAIC.

Lithium-Ion batteries get supercharged

Now, can I have one of these?

A new twist on the familiar lithium ion battery has yielded a type of power-storing material that charges and discharges at lightning speed. The finding could offer a boost for plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles and possibly allow cell phone batteries to regain a full charge in seconds rather than hours.

Rechargeable lithium ion batteries are small and light, yet can store copious amounts of energy, making them ideal for use in everyday electronic devices such as iPods and laptops. This valuable property, called energy density, can be scaled up for hybrid cars as well as for the all-electric Roadster built by Tesla Motors that relies on lithium ion batteries…and the similarly powered Chevy Volt plug-in electric, about to hit the market.

One downside: lithium ion batteries do not dispense their charge—carried by lithium ions and electrons, hence the power source’s name—very quickly compared with some other types of storage batteries. Like a huge auditorium that only has a few doors, getting a large volume of patrons (lithium ions) in and out is a drawn-out affair…The slow exchange of ions also means lithium ion batteries recharge slowly—just think of how long you have to charge your tiny cell phone.

In an attempt to pick up the pace, the M.I.T. researchers coated the lithium iron phosphate material with an ion conductor, which in this case was a layer of glasslike lithium phosphate. Sure enough, the charge-carrying ions traveled much faster from their storage medium; a prototype battery the scientists built completely charged in about 10 to 20 seconds…

Two companies have already licensed the technology, according to Byoungwoo Kang. Researchers are not sure how much these batteries will cost when they hit the market, but Kang says they should be reasonably priced, given that it should be relatively cheap to produce them.

I’m ready to get in line. I already have plans for photo-voltaic panels for our home; but, if I can afford to get off the grid altogether I’d love it.