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MIT Sloan alumnus attempts world-circling solar flight

For Solar Impulse’s André Borschberg “it’s a question of preparation meeting passion.”

December 29, 2015

The Solar Impulse 2 on a test flight over Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

The Solar Impulse 2 on a test flight over Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Solar Impulse co-founder André Borschberg, SM ’83, has a grand hypothesis: If an airplane can fly around the world without fuel—using only solar energy held in its batteries—the sun’s power is effectively limitless. He hopes that such a historic flight could change the future of energy consumption worldwide.

“Just imagine halving the planet’s energy consumption while saving natural resources in the process,” he said.

Borschberg and co-founder Bertrand Piccard hope to accomplish that with Solar Impulse, their solar aviation project based in Switzerland. Borschberg is an engineer, and Piccard skyrocketed to fame as the first person to accomplish a round-the-world, nonstop airballoon flight. In the coming months, the explorer-pilots expect to complete the first worldwide, high-altitude solar flight aboard their Solar Impulse 2.

The aircraft, constructed under Borschberg’s supervision, is powered only by the sun, with no fuel and no polluting emissions. The carbon-fiber aircraft is capable of flying at least 22,000 miles, in stages, over six months. It has roughly the wingspan of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, the weight of a typical car, and the power of a small motorcycle. It’s the lightest aircraft of its kind.

“This is a new paradigm in terms of energy use,” said Borschberg. “We have the capacity to be pioneers: We want to use this airplane as a symbol of what we can do with energy-efficient technologies and to promote clean tech solutions.”

André Borschberg, SM ’83, before takeoff in Nagoya, JapanAndré Borschberg, SM ’83, before takeoff in Nagoya, Japan

The duo made news in July when Borschberg completed the first oceanic leg of their worldwide flight. The Solar Impulse 2 landed in Hawaii after flying five nights and days without fuel from Japan, breaking solar aviation world records for distance and duration, traveling 4,400 miles during 117 hours. The plane suffered a battery malfunction, waylaying the craft in Hawaii for repairs. The flight is expected to resume in April.

Borschberg’s team hopes to inspire others with this journey, underpinning the sustainable mission with a sense of adventure. The purpose isn’t to transport passengers, said Borschberg, but to make a statement: The company is on the cutting edge of testing and developing clean technologies that could cut the world’s energy by half on a daily basis.

More than 10 such solar technologies have been patented by Solar Impulse’s partners in the interim, from solar-powered home insulation and electrical motors to solar elevators and LED lighting. Borschberg said flying is a logical next step.

It’s also the logical next step in his career. The engineer grew passionate about aviation as a child in Switzerland, and he’s flown jets for 20 years.

“I longed to sit in one of those jet fighters and be an Air Force pilot. And now I’m doing pioneering work in my field of passion: aviation,” he said.

Of course, these record-breaking, fuel-free flights carry risk. Borschberg uses yoga and meditation to prepare before flying.

“For me, it’s a question of preparation meeting passion,” he said.