Solar Impulse completes the first zero-fuel flight around the world

ABB alliance with Solar Impulse comes to a successful conclusion

It took longer than expected but, as Bertrand Piccard, the co-founder of Solar Impulse has said many times, “if it was easy, someone would have already done it.”

On July 26, 2016 Solar Impulse, the only plane capable of flying day and night using only the power of the sun, landed in Abu Dhabi, the starting point for what is now a first- ever successful circumnavigation of the globe with zero fuel. ABB has been there every step of the way, our innovation and technology alliance providing invaluable support to the project. Here’s a recap of what we have achieved together since early 2015.

ABB’s connection to the project began with the start of the round-the-world mission. We got involved because we saw in the plane a symbol for what we are doing on the ground: creating products and services that save energy and point the way to a cleaner future. And also because ABB has always prized innovation and pioneering spirit, which is why we have been at the forefront of major technological change over several decades, stretching right back to the birth of the electrical generation industry.

ABB engineers Stevan Marinkovic, Nicolas Loretan and Tamara Tursijan with Solar Impulse co-pilots André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard
ABB engineers Stevan Marinkovic, Nicolas Loretan and Tamara Tursijan with Solar Impulse co-pilots André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard

As part of our alliance, we provided three ABB engineers to the team in 2015. Nicolas Loretan and Stevan Marinkovic were based at the Solar Impulse workshop in Payerne, Switzerland: Nicolas helped to update electrical devices on the plane, ensuring the solar panels produce as much electrical energy as possible, in all conditions. Stevan made sure that the cockpit battery would always remain charged, minimizing the risk of the pilot losing control of the essential control systems.

The third, Tamara Tursijan, got to join with the Solar Impulse team as part of the ground crew: this meant that she would get to see the plane up close. Responsible for the electrical system of Solar Impulse’s mobile hangar, her role grew and she became an ambassador for the ABB/ Solar Impulse alliance.

The last leg of 2015 was an epic one: André Borschberg flew from Nagoya, Japan, to Honolulu in Hawaii. The total flight time was an astounding 4 days, 21 hours and 52 minutes, all with a solo pilot taking nothing more than power naps lasting a maximum of 20 minutes at a time! For ABB, whose portfolio continues a host of products and services designed to increase energy efficiency and bring more renewables onto the grid, there couldn’t be a better demonstration that transport over long distances and durations can be achieved without using any fuel.

However, this July flight was to be the last of 2015: it took a large toll on the batteries, which had overheated during the early stages. Not wanting to take any risks, the engineers opted to replace the damaged cells and this meant that it would be too late in the year to continue, once the new cells were installed in the plane. With the plane safe in a hangar at Kalealoa airport, the mission went on hiatus.

Eoin Caldwell

With a new year came renewed energy and the belief that it would be possible to complete the journey. ABB decided to renew their partnership in order to allow the mission to continue. A fresh ABB face also joined. With Tamara, Nicolas and Stevan concentrating on their engineering careers, Eoin Caldwell, a service engineer with ABB Ireland, came on board.

In April 2016, the weather conditions in Hawaii were right for a continuation of the round-the-world attempt. A US crossing went smoothly, and saw Solar Impulse fly over a country that has seen huge recent investment from ABB, and states and cities that are benefiting from our technology on a daily basis. Part 2 of the mission was a testament to the confidence the team had in the plane and pilots. Solar Impulse flew multi-day flights over the Pacific and the Atlantic, from Hawaii to Seville, Spain, in just two months. From there, the final portion of the journey, which took in Egypt before arrival back in Abu Dhabi, took less than a month and just 2 flights.

SI over pyramids

So now the plane is on dry land, but it will take those of us involved with this project a long time to get back to Earth! And what will the legacy be? We believe it will be a major one, for ABB and for the planet. It has given us the opportunity to show that, around the world, ABB is doing on the ground what Solar Impulse has done in the air: proving that we can use energy much more efficiently and that clean energy sources can provide stable, reliable power to the grid. It has also helped us to raise our profile and drawn attention to the many ways in which we are contributing to running the world without consuming the Earth.


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About the author

Conor Lennon

Formerly a broadcaster and communications consultant, I am currently based in Zurich as Global Special Projects Manager for ABB. I like to write about issues surrounding technology, sustainable development and society.
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