Not long out of college, Paige Kassalen got a cool work experience gig: being part of the flight crew for Solar Impulse, the solar-powered plane that recently flew 24,800 miles around the world. Over six months, she helped the 236-feet span aircraft take off and land, and overcame plenty of challenges along the way.
Kassalen described working on the project at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. The event was organized by Covestro, a material science company that supplied super-efficient insulation for the plane. Kassalen, an electrical engineer, worked with Solar Impulse as a part of a skills-based volunteering program the company runs.
Kassalen’s duties involved running after the plane as it landed, making sure the tandem-wheeled frame didn’t topple over when it was going too slowly. She was also in charge of inflating an enormous mobile hangar when a full hangar wasn’t available. Once, when the plane landed in Dayton, Ohio, the electrical system overheated and the young trainee thought she might cause irreparable damage to the fuselage.
“If the power system failed, in 15 minutes the whole hanger would collapse and it would crush the [lightweight] airplane and ruin the 12 year journey. It was very stressful,” she said. Luckily, Kassalen managed to get the power up and running just in time and the mishap didn’t have lasting impact.
The plane, piloted by André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, isn’t necessarily meant as the future of aviation. Rather, the intent is to prove that difficult journeys are possible and the world, generally-speaking, can move to less polluting energy sources. “The goal of Solar Impulse is to get everyone in the audience to say ‘Well they broke the boundaries, what can I do to add to the cleantech revolution?’,” Kassalen said.
Covestro’s polyurethane microcell material has 40% less pores than conventional insulation and was capable of keeping the pilots relatively comfortable at 28,000 feet and negative four degrees Fahrenheit. The plane itself was covered in 17,000 solar cells and had electric engines 13 feet long.
Now that a fuel-less plane has traversed the world, the main point has been proven: solar panels can provide enough energy to send two men as far as they need to go. But Kassalen said the technology itself could use some improvement. The batteries, which stored daily sunlight made up 1400 pounds of the 5100 pounds overall weight. If they’d been lighter, the plane would have reached its destination sooner. “If there’s a better way to store energy, that’s the way to go in the future,” she said.