Solar Technologies In Aerospace Engineering: Is Solar Aircraft Possible?


Sun will be biggest energy source of aerospace engineering. Taking advantage of this energy to an aircraft and creating a solar aircraft is not a novel technology. In high tech areas sun energy is being used for cars, watches, trains and other vehicle or devices. It has successful applications. Of course as a leading industry, aerospace engineering would not miss that opportunity to use the sun energy. So solar Impulse project has developed as a solar aircraft prototype. And there are two prototypes of solar powered aircraft. Since 2003 the research and development project is going on in aerospace engineering field. But is it really possible to have a feasible solar aircraft? Would us be able to use it following years? In this article, I will be taking you for a journey from Japan to USA to tell about the Solar Impulse future.

Solar Technologies are not dream in aerospace engineering.

Solar Technologies In Aerospace Engineering: Is Solar Aircraft Possible?

Solar powered aircraft is not a dream. İt is possible as all scientific stuff. That is successful project of an engineering team. Its latest flight is 117 hours and 52 min duration from Japan (Nagoya) to USA (Hawaii). Construction and aerospace engineering philosophy of Solar Impulse has difference according to traditional aircraft design. It has nearly 18.000 solar cells that collect 340 kWh of solar energy per day. Aerodynamical optimized and frame that is made from composite materials are critical part of engineering.

Sun is a Power Source for Aerospace Engineering

Power is main story as we are producing a sun powered engine. Traditional aircrafts are powered by internal combustion engines like turbojet, turbofan and propfan. A solar powered aircraft runs on electric motors. Electricity of these motors comes from solar cells or batteries. Main idea of a solar aircraft is based on using solar cells or charging batteries during flight.

All of research and development projects about solar powered aircrafts doesn’t have commercial applications yet. But it has milestones about using solar energy potential and increasing efficiency of flight in different aspects. Comparison of traditional aircrafts and solar aircrafts put forward major differences about basic aerospace engineering issues.

Comparison of Aerospace Engineering: Traditional Aircraft and Solar Impulse

Major differences of solar aircrafts and traditional aircrafts are power, cruise speed, service ceiling and weight. Scaling these differences get pieces together. Internal combustion engine powered passenger aircrafts has huge amount of power because of its turbines. An aircraft has above 27000 kW engine power that has 871 km/h cruise speed with 10600 altitude. But a Solar Impulse has only 52 kW electric motors that has 90 km/h cruise speed with 8500 altitude. Traditional aircraft has 175 tons of weight in comparison to 2.3 tons of weight solar aircraft. Below you can see our comparison table for these two types of aircraft.

Solar Impulse Traditional Aircraft
Engine Power 52 kW 27000 kW
Cruise Speed 90 km/h 871 km/h
Altitude 8500 km 10600 km
Weight 2.3 tons 175 tons

In aerospace engineering field fossil fuels has a dominant technology. Renewable energy technologies are less capable to fulfill aviation requirements. Cruise speed, height and capacity of solar aircraft isn’t useful for commercial purposes. By contrast a passenger aircraft Solar Impulse can’t carry 400 people in 800 km/h during a flight.

However, Solar Impulse has aimed at manned circumnavigation of the world not planned as passenger aircraft. There is alternative research and development projects about solar powered aircraft and space vehicles. But not solar powered passenger plane project yet. Maybe our kids would be able to fly with them!

Nowadays environmental issues are one of major topic in aerospace engineering. But optimistic ideas are needed to be available. Zero emission flights isn’t possible by using renewable energy in aircrafts. Today’s technology and experience led to decreasing emissions of flight by engine and aerodynamic design improvements.

Solar Impulse has performance limitations. It’s going well on its purpose. Against performance limitations it has a 117 hours 52 minutes solo flight endurance record. One way or later we will see if future is green or not in aerospace engineering.

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I am an experienced metallurgical, material engineer and passioned about aerospace. Currently working as a production engineer and writing articles here to share my knowledge
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