Monday, July 19, 2010

Here comes the sun

These days, when the Deepwater Horizon fiasco has the Gulf of Mexico looking almost as oily as the officials from BP, Transocean and Halliburton, it’s heartening to read about a Swiss gentleman by the name of Bertrand Piccard. Monsieur Piccard and his team of scientists and engineers spent six years building a solar-powered microlight plane, and last week this plane undertook its maiden all-night flight.

That’s right, a solar-powered plane, with a pilot—CEO Andre Borschberg—at the controls. A friend of mine actually asked how the damn thing can fly at night when the sun isn’t out, so let me just lay it out at the start: the solar power is stored in batteries. The kind of batteries you keep a sharp eye on, unlike at BP.

Piccard is a hypnotherapist and a balloonist who, in 1999, was first to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a gas balloon. He’s descended from a family of balloonists and inventors, and sounds, from his name, as if he should have big curly moustaches, jowls and a potbelly, and a retinue of manservants; but in fact he’s a very good-looking man with a wonderful smile. (His hotness is not relevant, but studies have shown that it helps.)

On his “patronage committee” are a number of famous people including Buzz Aldrin and Al Gore (also Paulo Coelho, but no committee is perfect); and descendents of famous explorers—Jean Verne, Jules Verne’s great grandson, and Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles. That’s fitting, because this little project could out-famous them all.

Piccard’s dream, called Solar Impulse, was announced six years ago; and on July 7 2010, after four years of design and modelling, simulations and test flights, the rather beautiful, dragonfly-shaped single-seater aircraft took to the skies for its first night flight. Its goal was to take off and attain maximum height as night fell, and fly until the next sunrise. Which, before that same friend asks, it did successfully, landing after 26 hours and 9 minutes, with power left over in the batteries.

Speaking at the TED conference last year, Piccard said that, just as in ballooning one has to toss ballast overboard to control trajectory by changing altitude, so in life one has to toss overboard the ballast of habit, certainties, convictions and dogmas in order to head in the right direction by changing paradigms. He talked about how his balloon had risen from Switzerland with 3.7 tons of liquid propane and landed in Egypt 20 days later with 40kgs; and when he saw that, he promised himself that the next time he flew around the world it would be with no fossil fuel, in order “not to be threatened by the fuel gauge”.
He saw his balloon capsule in the Air and Space Museum in Washington alongside other iconic flight vehicles such as Lindbergh’s and the Wright Brothers’ aircraft and Apollo 11, and realised that the lovely 20th century project of human flight is doomed if we stick with fossil fuel. How to perpetuate that pioneering spirit?

On July 8 2010, the Solar Impulse project celebrated its first truly exciting achievement. “The most renewable energy we have,” Piccard has said in his fabulously charming Swiss accent, “is our own potential and our own passion.” (His accent is not relevant, but studies have shown that it helps.)

Piccard and his project represent not just eco-warrior rhetoric, but an exciting first step towards making a real and significant departure from old dependencies. You can laugh at him, but only if you like sludgy pelicans, doomed fisheries, and the thought of having life come to a grinding halt when the fossil fuels run out.

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