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Zero-fuel plane showcased in Cairo

The solar-powered aircraft is currently on a pioneering journey around the world

Miro Guzzini , Wednesday 3 Jun 2015
solar impulse
Solar Impulse 2 seen in flight over Japan on June 1. (Source: solarimpulse.com)
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The Solar Impulse project was presented at a press conference in Cairo on Monday. Developed in Switzerland, this project has designed an airplane powered entirely by solar energy. The current prototype, Solar Impulse 2, is currently attempting a round-the-world trip. It would be the first of any solar-powered airplane.

The project was founded in 2003 by two Swiss pilots, André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard. The latter comes from a family of famous explorers, and gained notoriety in Egypt after his record-breaking round-the-world  journey in a hot-air balloon that ended in Egypt in 1999.

The first prototype plane, Solar Impulse 1, was completed in 2009. Similarly to the slightly larger Solar Impulse 2, the plane is powered by solar cells that cover the entire surface of its wings. The solar cells are also used to charge powerful batteries in the plane that allow it to fly at night. This gives the plane a virtually unlimited range, the only limitation being the endurance of its pilot.

Thanks to this innovation, the project was able to complete the world’s first manned overnight solar flight in 2010 as well as an intercontinental flight in 2012 and a cross-US journey the following year. Overall, the two pilots have set eight world records for solar aviation since 2010, according to a press release by the Swiss embassy.

Solar Impulse 2 started its round-the-world attempt in Abu Dhabi on March 9 and has since stopped in Oman, India, Myanmar and China, the press release confirmed. The plane departed Nanjing on Saturday in an attempt to reach Hawaii. Unfortunately, the Ambassador of Switzerland to Egypt, Markus Leitner, told the press this morning that Solar Impulse 2 had just been rerouted to Nagoya, Japan, due to bad weather.

An idea born in Switzerland
 

The conference was organised at Switzerland's embassy in Cairo in cooperation with major Swiss groups ABB and Schindler, a global leader in power and automation and a leading manufacturer of elevators and escalators, who are both involved in the Solar Impulse project.

“Solar Impulse is a modern example of Switzerland thinking out of the box, and of Swiss pioneering spirit”, the ambassador told the press.

“The World Economic Forum is putting Switzerland as the first country in terms of competitiveness, and one major reason for this is its ability to innovate. This is also mirrored by the Global Innovation Index, which ranks Switzerland as the number one innovative country.”

The ambassador hailed the project as a “commitment to a more sustainable future”, as its vision was to “contribute to the cause of renewable energies, to demonstrate the importance of clean technologies"

 

It also aimed to "place dreams and emotions back at the heart of scientific adventure”, he said.

 

Solar Impulse, a story of successful partnerships

 

The ambassador’s presentation was followed by speeches by Maxine Ghavi, programme director of the microgrids division at ABB, and Wassim Abou Shaar, the leader of Schindler in the Middle East and North Africa.

 

For Maxine Ghavi, ABB’s partnership with the Solar Impulse project seemed “natural”, as it fitted with what she described as the company’s drive for innovation and pioneering spirit. She estimated ABB’s yearly expenditure for research and development at $1,5 billion, and stressed the close collaboration of ABB with more than 70 universities and 8,000 scholars worldwide.

 

In terms of renewable energy, Ghavi mentioned the company’s development of high-voltage direct current (HVDC) as an example of ABB’s commitment to sustainable and efficient energy usage. This system allows for a more efficient usage of electricity, she claimed, provided further incentive for cooperation on the Solar Impulse project. “We focus on similar technology areas: renewables, energy efficiency, sustainable transport, storage," she said. "We felt really strongly about bringing the two together, and it is a very powerful combination.”

 

ABB is contributing to the project with three engineers, according to Ghavi. Two of them are working on the propulsion of the solar aircraft and on increasing the energy efficiency of its solar cells and its batteries. A further engineer is contributing to Solar Impulse’s  mobile hangar, which enables maintenance and repairs to be carried out in any airport the aircraft might have to land in during its long journey.

 

Abou Shaar spoke of Shindler's development of solar elevators, which he claims have recently been introduced in some places in Europe. Schindler has also contributed to the Solar Impulse project with engineers, and Mr. Abou Shaar expressed the hope that this would allow for “scientific networking” and the exchange of ideas to the benefit of both organisations.

 

The potential of renewable energy in Egypt

 

Two Egyptian officials also spoke at the conference to highlight the importance of this venture and of renewable energy for Egypt.

 

Engineer Omneya Sabry, vice chairperson of the New and Renewable Energy Authority (NREA) stressed the importance of making electricity supply in Egypt more diverse and more efficient in the face of increasing demand. Public-private partnership would be the way forward to acheive this, she said.

 

Egypt's government recently introduced investment schemes and legislation to enable this, she added, such as a new tariff scheme introduced in October 2014 and a law on the privatisation of electricity production approved in February this year.

 

“A combined renewable energy master plan has been issued," Sabry added. "It was financed by the EU, and it aims at a 30% [share of renewable energy] by the year 2035.”

 

The bulk of this renewable energy would come from wind and solar energy, she said, highlighting the ongoing development of solar generators in Hurghada and Kom Ombo.

 

Hany El-Adawy, vice-chairman of the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority, was also present and highlighted the need to create “clean airports”, especially in light of the growing air transportation market. Such “clean airport” initiatives would be initiated in Alexandria, Sharm El-Sheikh and Aswan, with the aim of relying increasingly on biofuel and solar energy. “The Solar Impulse programme is an outstanding project that marks the need for more innovation in civil aviation”, he said.

New challenges

Connecting new energy sources to the electric grid would be the main obstacle to introducing renewable energy in Egypt, all speakers agreed at the conference. As solar and wind energy are not generated centrally, the grid would be put under increased stress, they claimed.

Ghavi, however, insisted that the necessary technology to solve this issue was available, with developments such as the microgrids. “All we need is a viable business model, and for key policies to catch up with technology”, she said, echoing the NREA’s position that public-private partnership is the key to success.

 

The press conference was followed by a presentation of the project at Cairo University in the afternoon. Ambassador Leitner stressed the importance to educate the younger population and to foster creative thinking.

 

“Egypt is a young country”, he said, referring to the young age of the population, “but we’re not seeing its full potential in terms of innovation and pioneering.”

 

A further conference at the AUC Astronomy Club scheduled for Tuesday had to be cancelled, according to the club’s Facebook page.

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