The Solar Impulse! Flight without fossil fuels

Perusing NPR this morning I stumbled across a report about this solar tech gem. The Solar Impulse, an aircraft powered entirely by solar power (with storage tech sufficient to keep it airborne day and night), stands poised to change the very face of aviation: to enable us to travel the world “without fuel or pollution.” Now, needless to say, there is work to be done. The plane itself is still in R&D, as its engineers have yet to pressurize, oxygenate, or heat the cabin–and its top speed is still comparable to a sluggish car (40-50 mph). But the Impulse successfully completed its inaugural flight over Switzerland and plans to fly California to New York in 2015.

Its creators, with Faustian enthusiasm, aim to challenge the impossible; to overturn conventional wisdom about sustainable development and clean energy technology. To be certain, taking to the sky without the help of fossil fuels does exactly that (albiet, I’m sure fossil fuels were used somewhere along the process of engineering the Impulse). In the words of aviation pioneer and Impulse designer Bertrand Piccard, the plane carries not passengers, but a message: one of inspiration for the quality of future of humanity, and our relationship with the Earth and its resources.

I maintain that our relationship with the sun is a special one. Life–energy–the escalation of biological complexity despite the second law of thermodynamics–the sun makes it all possible. And here again we are reminded that with dedication and ingenuity, we need not revert to burning its multi-million year old fossil energy reserves to perpetuate our quality of life. After all, whether we’re talking about coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, or wind–these are all indirect manifestations of solar power: biomass through photosynthesis; coal, oil, and natural gas through the fossilization of biomass; wind through atmospheric temperature and pressure changes as the sun heats the air. Logically, to channel solar power directly to the human energy demand is more efficient and therefore more sustainable than waiting for its conversion into fossilized organic material (or even wind, though the turn around in the case of wind is tremendously shorter than FFs)–we simply need the proper technology to take our consumption to the original source. The Solar Impulse is a strong step in that direction.

Despite being optimistic, I still struggle with my own skepticism about technoscientific utopian progressivism and techno-cornucopianism–that with enough time and technology human beings can overcome the paradox of progress–because it’s not obvious to me that the rare Earth resources we need to continue the flow of technological innovation will be recoverable indefinitely, or that organized civil society will remain stable for long enough to foster such technological advancement. But such skepticism is more of nagging intuition, substantiated by the provocation of John Gray and participants in the Dark Mountain Project, than an empirical problem. Malthus, as we’ve seen, was not correct (at least not yet)–and while I am confident that eventually the Earth’s human carrying capacity will be upon us, we may be able to stay off a painful population negative feedback cycle through (relatively) cheap and emerging energy (shale gas, wind, solar, nuclear) and intentional (e.g. – birth control distribution, family-limit policies, etc. ) and indirect (e.g. – women’s education, resource scarcity affecting reproductive instincts, etc.) population management methods long enough to smoothly and comfortably reach the point of sustainability (sustainable consumption & sustainable population). Human beings, as Lovelock predicts, will find a way to muddle through.

As Gray makes clear, to believe in a human future of technoscientific progress is a matter of faith. Even more so, to believe in progress as sustainability is an even bolder exercise of optimism. Whether such faith is hopelessly naive will be revealed in due course. But in the meantime, advances in solar tech like the Solar Impulse give me reason to keep believing. Or at least to be excited about the future.

Cheers, jmk

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One thought on “The Solar Impulse! Flight without fossil fuels

  1. Pingback: Mars in 30 days? Solar powered space flight | tothesungod

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