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Around the World In a Solar Plane

Piccard wants to be the first to circumnavigate the globe in a plane powered entirely by photovoltaic cells

3 min read

In 1999, Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Brian Jones of England became the first people in history to circumnavigate the world nonstop in a hot-air balloon. Their successful 19-day journey in the Breitling Orbiter 3 earned the pair a jubilant welcome home to Geneva and a visit with the Queen of England at a balloon factory in Bristol. Now, 45-year-old psychiatrist Piccard proposes to duplicate the feat in an airplane powered entirely by photovoltaic cells.

Piccard is developing his project, dubbed Solar Impulse, in consultation with scientists and engineers at the Swisscole Polytechnique Fdrale de Lausanne (EPFL). The EPFL previously contributed technical expertise both to Piccard's balloon adventure and to the Swiss yacht Alinghi, the America's Cup winner in 2003.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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