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Swiss adventurer aims to take solar energy to new heights

Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard hopes to fly a solar-powered plane around the world. His 'Solar Impulse' project will be part of Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum which opens in Bonn on June 21.

Bertrand Piccard

For Piccard, even the sky isn't the limit when it comes to using solar energy

In 1999, Bertrand Piccard made history by circling the globe non-stop in a balloon. Now the Swiss adventurer is gearing up for his next big feat – flying around the world in a solar-powered craft to demonstrate the potential of renewable energies.

"The biggest adventure of the 21st century is not to walk over the Moon but rather to overcome our dependence on fossil-based fuels," Piccard said.

The 52-year-old says he wants his project to put "a positive and sexy face" on renewable sources of power and energy efficiency.

Making solar 'sexy'

It was around a decade ago in the deserts of Egypt that Piccard first came up with the idea of making solar energy "attractive and sexy."

"That's when it became clear to me how reliant we are on fuel," Picard said.

He and his crew member Brian Jones took almost 20 days to circle the globe. They began with almost four tons of liquid propane gas. By the time they landed only 40 kilograms of the gas remained.

Bertrand Piccard.

Piccard is a relentless thrill-seeker with a green conscience

"We would have crashed into the Atlantic if the wind had been just a little weaker," Piccard said.

The experience prompted him to take a personal pledge: next time he would fly around the world "without fuel."

The Swiss man clearly relishes a challenge.

"My motivation is to have an interesting and a useful life," Piccard said, adding that he wakes up everyday prepared to "leave old truths and habits in the past."

"I think we can achieve so much more in life and make things so much better if we would stop doing the same things over again."

A dragonfly with giant wings

The technology and know-how for Piccard's solar plane is provided by a specialist team from the Technical College in Lausanne led by Andre Broschberg.

The engineer and former fighter pilot is now Piccard's official partner for the "Solar Impulse" project. The prototype of the solar-powered plane, which is called HB-SIA, completed its first long test-flight in April this year.

The craft is made of carbon fiber and outfitted with solar batteries and energy-minimizing technology, and weighs 1,600 kilograms. It looks a bit like a giant dragonfly. The wingspan measures about 64 meters on either side – comparable to an Airbus A340. The only difference is that the jumbo jet weighs around four tonnes.

The solar plane 'Solar Impulse'

Is it a bird? Is it a dragonfly? No, it's a solar plane

The long wings make the solar plane extremely vulnerable to wind and weather. But the huge wingspan is needed to store the solar cells that power plane's four propellers, giving it a speed of about 70 kilometers per hour.

The craft uses super-efficient solar cells, batteries, motors and propellers to get it through the dark hours, when it is expected to rise to an altitude of 10,000 meters and gradually descend to save energy.

Special lithium polymer batteries, which weigh around 400 kilograms, are the heaviest part of the plane.

Sky's the limit?

If the batteries don't last until the next sunrise, the pilot can opt for an emergency landing. In two years' time, the plane will set off on its first manned transatlantic solar flight, followed in 2013 by an even more daring circumnavigation of the Earth.

The project costs a minimum of 70 million euros and is risky.

Piccard says he does get nervous when he thinks about all that could happen during the flight. But the father of three says he "is much more scared to live in a world in which we burn a million tonnes of oil every hour."

Piccard's love of adventure is not exactly surprising. He comes from a famous family of researchers. His grandfather Auguste was the first human to fly in a balloon in the stratosphere. And Piccard's father Jaques was the first to dive to the deepest point of the world's oceans.

Piccard sayw his experience shows that there's no longer an excuse for companies or governments not to expand the use of renewable energy.

"It it's possible in the air to fly day and night with solar energy then no one on the ground can say any longer that it's impossible to use renewable energies for industries, for cars or heating systems," he said.

Author: Sandra Petersmann (sp)
Editor: Nathan Wiktop

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