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Environment

This solar powered plane is trying to complete a historic around-the-world flight

The Solar Impulse 2, a plane powered only by solar panels, is attempting to set a world record by being the first plane of its type to fly around the world. It began its journey in March 2015, departing from the United Arab Emirates and stopping in Oman, India, Myanmar, China and Japan before needing an extended repair stop.

Solar Impulse is a privately financed project led by Swiss engineer and businessman André Borschberg and Swiss psychiatrist and aeronaut Bertrand Piccard. Piccard and Borschberg are taking turns in the cockpit since the plane took off from Abu Dhabi in March 2015. The two pilots hope the flight will build support for more clean energy technologies.

The plane features 17,000 solar cells on top of its 236 foot long wings and four lithium-polymer batteries that can store energy during the day to power the plane at night. The first version of the plane, Solar Impulse 1, successfully made a multi-stage flight across the US in 2013.

While the plane's fastest speed is only 43 miles per hour, and solar panels may be unlikely to power commercial planes anytime soon, Solar Impulse could prove the potential of clean energy in aircrafts and other tech applications. Finding ways to incorporate clean energy sources like solar power into planes and other types of vehicles could reduce carbon emissions resulting from travel.

Emissions from air travel are estimated to account for just over 3% of global warming. That number is rapidly rising as the number of flights increases much faster than improvements in fuel efficiency.

One round-trip flight across the US produces a warming effect equivalent to 2-3 tons of carbon dioxide per person on the flight. The average US resident generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year.

Solar Impulses’ successful flights give an important message that “everybody could use the same technologies on the ground to halve our world’s energy consumption, save natural resources and improve our quality of life,” according to their mission statement.

The around-the-world trip took a pause in July 2015 after the plane’s battery was damaged during a 5 day-long journey from Japan to Hawaii. After going through repairs for 9 months, the aircraft resumed travel this April.

The plane has since begun its continental American leg of the flight, landing in Mountain View, California, and Phoenix, Arizona. It will make two more stops in the US before flying over the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. The trip is expected to end back in Abu Dhabi later this year.

The technology behind Solar Impulse is revolutionary and will continue to improve with time. Well on its way to completing the ambitious world trip, the solar powered plane is a global example of the applicability of clean and renewable energy sources in technology.