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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Solar-plane maker pitches for Chinese university funding

Keith Wallis in Geneva
South China Morning Post
December 15, 2010
Universities in Hong Kong and China are being encouraged to join the development of the European Solar Impulse solar-powered aircraft programme. It is being promoted as a means to upgrade academic research into clean-energy and aviation technologies.

Bertrand Piccard, a record-breaking balloonist and pilot who heads the project, wants universities to contribute cash.

In return, donor institutions would be able to send researchers to Switzerland, where the solar-powered aircraft is being made, to study the manufacturing and team-management processes that underpin the construction of the plane.

The move would broaden the international appeal of the project as well as widen funding for the US$115 million programme, which tests the feasibility of zero-emission aircraft.

The initiative is also open to other universities including those in the Middle East.

Piccard said that, so far, Solar Impulse had received commitments of about US$80 million. The programme needs to raise a further US$35 million by 2014, in time for a planned around-the-world test flight.

"We are looking for additional partners. What we need is US$35 million over the next four years," Piccard said.

The cash would be used for flight testing and to build a second aircraft featuring a bigger cockpit and a larger payload. That would allow a pilot to rest during the marathon global flight.

The aircraft, which made a record-breaking 26-hour non-stop flight around Switzerland last July, uses carbon-fibre and solar-cell technology largely developed outside the aircraft industry.

Piccard said plans for the world tour were still being worked out, but there would be two stops in Asia, including one in China, and a stop in either Japan or South Korea.

Andre Borschberg, the pilot who flew the propeller-driven aircraft on its 26-hour July flight, said the global trip would have at least five stops.

Piccard said the focus of the development programme, which has been under way since 2003, is on aircraft design refinements, flight testing and aircraft certification by aviation authorities in Europe and the United States.

This would be the precursor to any around-the-world flight, as the aircraft would have to be certified by such officials as safe to fly.

Piccard said one of the key objectives of the development phase was to cut the weight of the aircraft while increasing the efficiency of the lithium batteries that store power generated by the plane's 200 square metres of solar cells, which cover the wings.

Piccard said the aircraft programme was part of a wider crusade to address energy waste and climate change.

As an example, Borschberg said the aircraft cabin was unheated during the day-and-night flight in July. The pilot used an air-filled flight suit to keep warm during the flight, when temperatures fell to minus 18 degrees Celsius.

Borschberg said similar technology could be used to heat homes.

Copyright 2010 South China Morning Post Ltd.All Rights Reserved
South China Morning Post

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