Final Project Summary: Solar Powered Planes

Daniel Altieri

Background Information on Aviation Fossil Fuel Use:

• Worldwide flights produced approximately 781 million tonnes of CO2 in 2015, humans produced about 36 billion tonnes of CO2

• 2% of all human induced CO2 emissions come from aviation

• Aviation is responsible for about 12% of all transportation emissions, automobiles produce 74% of total transportation emissions

• Aviation GDP would rank 21st in the world among countries (196 total countries)

• 9% of US transportation CO2 emissions come from aviation

• US aircraft CO2 emissions are about 29% of all global aircraft emissions

• Aircraft emissions is the single largest emitter of CO2 that is not subject to regulations against GHG

For my final presentation to the class, I decided to talk about the idea of solar-powered airplanes, specifically, I wanted to focus more intently on the potential benefits that solar powered planes could bring, the drawbacks of using solar power, and the feasibility of bringing solar powered planes to the general public in the future. I assigned two articles for the class to read beforehand, in order to provide background information and address the topics that I mentioned above for anyone who did not have previous knowledge of solar-powered planes. The first reading that was assigned was an article in the journal Progress In Aerospace Sciences titled Solar- Powered Airplanes: A Historical Perspective and Future Challenges by X. Zhu, Z. Guo, and Z. Hou, published in 2014. The other article that the class was asked to read was a February 2012 article in BBC News by Jon Stewart titled Solar Planes: Will They Ever Take Off. Both articles discussed the history of solar flight and the amount of potential that solar powered planes have in the coming decades.

The first article discusses the history of solar powered planes that have been invented by either federal organizations, or by private individuals and companies. NASA created a solar powered plane called the Pathfinder whose purpose was to preform environmental research using sensor technology. Another example given in the article is from the Swiss government who funded Bertrand Piccard to build the Solar Impulse, which flew from Switzerland to Morocco non-stop in June 2012. The authors then discuss the possible uses for solar powered aircraft, besides passenger travel. Military uses and ISR communication, hazard warning, rescue, and assessment, agriculture data tracking, and even interstellar space travel are all potential uses for solar powered aircraft; due to the fact that they don’t need fuel, and can remain in flight continuously. Finally, the authors talked about the setbacks that solar powered planes face for passenger travel. Weight issues, worry about propulsion and structure systems, and the efficiency of the solar energy batteries were all points that were mentioned in the article. As a class, we discussed these issues, and the feasibility of solar powered travel for passengers in the future. Many students in the class were not optimistic about solar powered travel; however, they were more enthusiastic about the idea of solar powered planes being used for the tasks beside transport that were previously mentioned.

The second reading that was discussed in class highlights many of the same aspects of solar powered planes that the fist reading did. However, it introduces more skepticism about the possibility of solar powered planes being used for passenger transport, and talks about other uses that they could be used for. Our discussion drifted away from the readings and we talked about the issues of private vs. public use of solar powered technology. Some students brought up the point of how GPS technology is used by everyone, even though it is government owned. There was some debate that only wealthy individuals would be able to afford solar powered technology, and that the idea of everyone having access to this technology would be infeasible. While we agreed that solar technology is costly at this moment in time, there was some optimism among the class that there will be a point in the future, potentially in our own lifetimes, where solar powered technology could be afforded as easily as household drones are now.

While the idea of solar powered planes being commonly used for both personal, governmental, and travel uses seem infeasible currently, I believe that in the next few decades or so the prospect of not having to rely on fossil fuels will be so enticing, that the solar market will start to grow exponentially, and solar technology will become widespread across developed and developing nations alike.

Works Cited:

“Airplane Emissions.” Transportation and Global Warming. Center for Biological Diversity, July 2016. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.

“Facts & FIGURES - Air Transport Action Group (ATAG).” Air Transport Action Group (ATAG). Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), May 2016. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.

Stewart, J., “Solar planes: Will they ever take off?,” BBC Future, February 22, 2012.

Zhu, X., Guo, Z. Hou, Z., “Solar-powered airplanes: A historical perspective and future challenges,” Progress in Aerospace Sciences, Vol. 71, November 2014, pp. 36-53.


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