The future of renewable energy as seen by Bertrand Piccard
“All that is impossible remains to be achieved”
Imprisoned at the hands of King Minos, Daedalus and his son Icarus sought a way to escape from their exile on Crete. Since the seaways were under Minos’s control, there was only one option remaining: the open sky. Daedalus built two pairs of wings wind, became too high-spirited and soared up to the sun. The sun melted the wax of his wings and he crashed into the sea.
This Greek myth is often cited as an illustration of the tragic consequences of presumption. While not accusing Bertrand Piccard of presumption, the fact remains that the adventurer from Lausanne has much in common with the mythological Icarus. However, for Piccard, the sun is not the symbol of perdition but rather the source of success.
On 1 March 1999, Piccard and his co-pilot Brian Jones landed their hot-air balloon in the desert of Egypt, having successfully circumnavigated the globe, a journey of 40,755 km. A new chapter of aviation history was written.
In spite of the impressiveness of his achievements in the air, one of Piccard’s defining moments actually came after the balloon was safely on the ground. When Piccard checked how much fuel was left in his balloon’s tanks, he was shocked to see that the fuel levels were almost empty and to realize that he and Jones had come dangerously close to failing their mission. The balloon had left Switzerland with almost four tonnes of liquid propane gas, but at the end of the trip only 40 kilos were left.
“That day, I promised myself that the next time I would fly around the world it would be independent from fuel,” Piccard says today. That day, the idea of circling the world in a solar airplane was born, and it was a project to which the charismatic psychiatrist would devote the next period of his life.
The former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said that “people who have a vision should go see a doctor.” However, in Piccard’s case, the visionary spirit is a hereditary disease.
His grandfather Auguste Piccard, a distinguished professor of physics, was the first human to ascend to the stratosphere and to see the curvature of the earth’s surface.
Bertrand’s father Jacques Piccard was also an explorer, albeit of another dimension. On the basis of Auguste’s invention of the pressurized cockpit, Jacques dove 10,916 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, setting the still unbroken deep-dive record.
Pushing the limit
By flying around the world with solar power, the 51-year-old Bertrand Piccard literally closed the family circle.
The goal to forgo fossil fuel, however, raises the basic question about the alternatives to non-renewable energy resources. The project draws upon the rapid development of the solar energy industry in recent decades. Yet today’s photovoltaic cells can provide the motor of an airplane with a mere 6 kW over 24 hours. That is roughly the amount of power the Wright brothers had available to them in 1903 when they made their first powered flight.
Still, the challenge to construct an airplane that could fly powered solely by its own energy day and night has stimulated the spirit of innovation of scientists and engineers. In collabora-tion with the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, a host of experts has developed a prototype of an airplane which is able to meet the challenge. It is extremely light, aero-dynamic and energy efficient: the take-off weight is less than 1,500 kilograms, the wingspan is 61 meters and a central computing system adapts the energy consumption of the plane to the particular flight conditions.
By pushing the technological limits, the plane – named “Solar Impulse” – aims to inspire scientific research in the field of energy resources and to increase awareness about renewable energies.
Ambassador of the future
Although few would deny that Solar Impulse promotes technological innovation, it could also be argued that the Solar Impulse is just a drop in the ocean and that Piccard’s project is mostly intended to please the media. However, the symbolic impact of circling the world should not be under-estimated. After all, the dream of flying is as old as mankind.
The vision of a green future fuelled by renewable energies is the main driver of the project. The recent turmoil in the financial markets has shifted the focus away from environmental con-cerns in a lot of heads. Nevertheless, Piccard is convinced that his vision has a strong tailwind. He depicts the current economic crises as a salutary tempest which offers the opportunity to modify our energy consumption habits. While energy hogs of the car industry and no-frills airlines are the dinosaurs of transportation, Solar Impulse is the ambassador of the future. It reminds us that the possibilities of technological innovations can make the fantasies of Jules Verne’s novels into reality – but only if men of action are ready to think beyond the limits of conventional wisdom.
This June, the Solar Impulse prototype will be unveiled and will take its first trial run. The big flight around the world is scheduled to take place in 2011. After more than 2000 years, Icarus might finally be avenged.