SunPower isn’t just powering roofs and solar farms these days. The company, which touts its solar panels as the most durable and efficient on the market, is looking at other applications. I’d be hard pressed to find one as awesome as the upcoming Mission SolarStratos expedition which will be powered by its 22-24% efficient Maxeon™ solar cells.[…]
The SolarStratos is an electric plane that has the flight characteristics of a low drag glider. It has extremely long thin wings and a very small profile. However it is outfitted with an electric motor, a very efficient front propeller, and wings and tail covered with around 24 square meters of solar panels. Inside fit up to 2 pilots in fighter configuration and what appears to be a 20kWh battery (nearly the same size as the 125 mile Hyundai IONIQ).
Interestingly this plane will not be pressurized, requiring the pilots to wear space suits that are also powered by the energy from the solar panels and stored in the battery.
Some stats from the press release (below):
- Length: 8.5 meters – about 30 feet, or the distance from the end zone to the 10-yard line on an American football field
- Wingspan: 24.8 meters – about 81 feet, or the length of two standard city buses
- Weight: 450 kilograms – about as heavy as a grand piano; to make SolarStratos its lightest, the cabin will not be pressurized, requiring pilots to wear astronaut suits that are pressurized by solar energy
- Engine: 32-kilowatt electrical engine, about one-third the size of what would power an electric vehicle
- Energy: 22 square meters of SunPower Maxeon solar cells, each reaching 22 to 24 percent efficiency
- Batteries: One 20-kilowatt lithium ion battery
- Autonomy: Self-generates electricity with solar to power the plane for more than 12 hours
SunPower has been part of the solar industry consolidation of late amid lower profits, tax uncertainty and squeezing margins. Pairing up with SolarStratos is likely more marketing than actual new business model, however.
That said, and the reason it is interesting to us, is that we’re slowly moving toward electric powered flight being a reality for long haul aviation. Right now, electric aviation is limited to short flights with limited cargo but with improving battery technologies, stronger, lighter building materials and theoretically solar wings, range could be improved to where electric flight makes sense for many more applications.
Solar panels as thin as a hair, almost weightless and durable that can deliver 22-24% efficiency are an important part of that mix.
If this thing can get up to 60,000 feet and fly all day, we’re on our way.