September 24, 2008

Solar Takes Flight

By Grose, Thomas K

AERONAUTICS Planes that employ solar energy have been around since the 1970s. But Swiss scientist and pilot Bertrand Piccard is developing a sun-powered plane that's truly revolutionary. He expects his Solar Impulse aircraft to circumnavigate the Earth by 2011 in a five-leg, monthlong mission. If he succeeds, it will be the first manned solar-powered plane to take off under its own power and remain aloft once the sun's gone to bed. At night, the plane will glide at lower altitudes to conserve power. Already, Piccard has raised $62 million in corporate sponsorship. It's more than just a stunt, he says. It's a means to push the envelope in developing solar energy technologies with commercial potential.

Certainly as fossil fuel costs soar, solar's future is looking brighter. A recent report commissioned by the environmental nonprofit Co-op America says that solar power will reach cost parity with traditional fuels within 10 years and that 10 percent of the country's power will be solar by 2025.Though photovoltaic solar panels grab headlines, the power industry is more serious about thermal solar power, which uses arrays of mirrors to collect then turn sun rays into steam to turn turbines. Thermal solar systems are cheaper to build than solar panels and don't rely on increasingly scarce silicon. Who says there's nothing new under the sun?-TG Copyright AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR ENGINEERING EDUCATION Sep 2008

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