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Solar Impulse, which recently landed in Brussels following its first international flight, is being used to showcase renewable technology – chiefly of use to the electric car market – to policymakers during Green Week.
With a wingspan the size of a medium-sized passenger jet and weighing about as much as a family car, including its sole passenger – Swiss pilot Andre Borschberg – the plane is the largest of its weight ever to have been built.
The culmination of seven years' work, solar cells integrated into the carbon fibre wings supply four electric motors with renewable energy and charge lithium polymer batteries during the day, enabling the so-called 'Solar Impulse' aircraft to fly at night.
Borschberg safely landed in Brussels on the evening of Friday 13 May after leaving Payerne airfield in Switzerland shortly before 9am, following a delayed departure as the Swiss-based 'mission control' team waited for high winds over the Alps to abate.
The plane reaches an altitude of 3,600 metres, at which height it can soak up an optimum amount of sun, and Borschberg – a 57-year-old former Swiss soldier – wears a parachute in case he needs to ditch.
Plane to drive electric cars
The plane is not designed as a prototype passenger airliner, however, and its innovative technologies are more adaptable for use in electric cars.
Claude Michel, a senior vice-president at Belgian chemicals company Solvay – which has been the main partner of Solar Impulse since 2004 – said: "Both the technologies which are used in the plane – the maximisation of battery efficiency-to-weight ratio and the ultra-lightweight materials – are both of great application to the development of more efficient electric cars. If you can reduce weight then you can save on emissions."
Air show attraction
The plane will be the centre of a flurry of attention during its stay in Brussels over Green Week – where it is located in a hangar at Zaventem airport given over to education and entertainment.
It was launched with a dinner yesterday (23 May) attended by Connie Hedegaard and Viviane Reding, EU commissioners for climate action and justice respectively.
Pilot and co-founder Bertrand Piccard told the gathering: "Politicians need the same pioneering spirit as those in the aviation industry now more than ever, because the challenges facing us in terms of fossil fuel reliance are greater than ever."
The Solar Impulse was likened by Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding to "the bird that represents the European dream". She said: "We need to have something to dream of and to see that the dream can become a reality."
Alexandra Gindroz, a spokeswoman for Solar Impulse, said the Solar Impulse team also anticipated visits from the presidents of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas, Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, ambassadors, and German Social Democrat MEP Joe Leinen with members of the Parliament’s environment committee, which he chairs.
The plane will remain in Brussels until it flies to the Paris Air Show in late June, where it is featuring as a special attraction. The team will subsequently focus on an Atlantic crossing, before attempting a round-the-world flight in 2013, making only five stops along the way.