Solar Impulse & Air Travel

Solar Impulse

Today Solar Impulse completes historic round the World trip. Seen here flying over the PS10 solar power station, Seville. Two symbols of ‘The Solar Age’

I’ve been blogging for six and a half years and have posted 210 blogs and not one of them has focused on air transport. For decades environmentalists have opposed airport expansion, and a few committed individuals vowed never to fly again. However the numbers of people flying continues to rise. Globally many people can afford to travel who previously could not, and many businesses require international travel. International air transport is not about to end any time soon. Air travel represents one of the fastest growing sources of carbon emissions. Current aircraft technology is highly polluting. Slight gains in efficiency are more than offset by increased numbers of people flying, so pollution from aircraft continues to get worse.

Many MPs, led by Grant Shapps, are lobbying for an immediate decision to build a third runway at Heathrow. Other airports want to expand. However with existing technology this will only make pollution worse.

Meanwhile this week two eccentric round the world flights have taken place. The Russian balloonist Fyodor Konyukhov has just knocked two days off the fastest round the world balloon record with a hybrid helium and hot air balloon. Solar Impulse has just landed in Abu Dhabi, so completing the first round the world flight using just photovoltaic power from the sun. The question is do these two achievements have anything to contribute to the mainstream development of aviation? I think they have, given the right market encouragement. So taxing polluting aircraft fuels would help, not building new infrastructure for this current polluting technology and putting more money into less polluting alternatives would all be steps in the right direction.

Bertrand Piccard, one of the two pilots and entrepreneurs behind the Solar Impulse has said “I make the bet that in 10 years we will have electric aeroplanes flying with 50 passengers for short to medium-haul flights”. That for me is one of the most encouraging statements about the future of air travel I’ve ever heard.

Might we also see lighter than air, zeppelin type craft being developed which may include helium for lift and photovoltaic cells for power? Such aircraft would be virtually free of carbon emissions, particulates or noise pollution, and might be able to land on very much smaller inner city airports. Perhaps air travel may yet become ecologically sustainable, but it has a long way to go and needs the support of governments to achieve this important objective. Today thanks go to Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, and to Fyodor Konyukhov, for helping us think differently about the possibilities of flight.

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