It’s the dream of world travelers burdened with a guilty environmental conscience: flying in a completely solar-powered plane, no fossil fuels required. That’s still a long way off for commercial travelers, but pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg are about to take the first step, flying around the world in an experimental solar plane called the Solar Impulse 2.
This isn’t the first solar-powered journey for Piccard and Borschberg. They have already take the earlier model of the plane, the Solar Impulse, across the U.S. The two and a half ton Solar Impulse II, which is powered by four lithium-ion batteries and 17,248 solar cells, is a significant upgrade, featuring luxuries like a toilet (that does triple duty as the cockpit seat and a recliner) and autopilot–all things that the previous version lacked.The whole thing weighs less than an SUV.
The round-the-world-journey won’t exactly be speedy; the plane only goes between 20 and 90 mph. But that slow speed means there won’t be many breaks either, especially while crossing the Pacific. During their journey over the ocean, the pilots will stay aloft for five days straight, a feat that requires flying relatively high to soak up the sun during the day, and then flying low in the evenings.
The Solar Impulse 2 will take off and land in Abu Dhabi in late February or early March. Pit stops include Muscat, Oman; Ahmedabad, India; Mandalay, Myanmar, Nanjing, China; New York City; Phoenix, Arizona; and Hawaii.
There are no plans to turn the Solar Impulse 2 into a commercial plane. The point of the journey, Piccard explained to Co.Exist in 2013, is to stimulate innovation in clean energy technologies. And if that innovation one day leads to a commercial solar-powered plane, no one will complain.