Despite recently finishing its round the world trip earlier this year when the weather allows it, does Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg’s Solar Impulse need a battery upgrade?
By: Ringo Bones
It is not only the most insured prototype aircraft to set out a record breaking feat, but the Solar Impulse – that solar-powered that could – barely finished its Japan to Hawaii leg of its circumnavigation when its lithium ion batteries overheated back in July 3, 2015 when the weather allows it, but could be facing a battery upgrade. After all, the lithium ion batteries used in the "somewhat successful" round the world flight were deemed not airworthy after one used on a Japan Air Lines 787 Dreamliner’s auxiliary power unit caught fire back in January 7, 2013. Even though the designers might concentrate on sturdier composite materials to make the Solar Impulse better withstand inclement weather while preserving its lightness, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg now have several models of newfangled rechargeable batteries to chose from that offer more storage, lighter weight, quicker charge time and more fire resistance than the current lithium ion batteries they currently use.
If Piccard and Borschberg chose quick charge as a paramount importance, they could ask the folks at Store Dot because their Fast Charging Flash Batteries were demoed at the 2015 CES Show at Las Vegas back in January and it was able to drive an electric car for 300 miles or 480 kilometers with just 5 minutes worth of charge. This quickness of charge is akin to the time it takes to fill the tank of a conventional internal combustion engine powered aircraft’s fuel tank to full.
Another attractive battery upgrade for the Solar Impulse is Solid Energy Systems’ Anode-Less Rechargeable Batteries which was introduced earlier this year in the 2015 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Though the demonstration model is only sized to power a mobile phone, it managed to power a mobile phone for 24 hours with just 5 minutes worth of charge and its designers will make a larger model for powering electric cars and even electric planes once they get appropriate funding. Solid Energy Systems’ Anode-Less Rechargeable Batteries last twice as long as current lithium ion battery models and has a 1,200 watt-hour per liter energy density which approaches the energy density of aviation grade kerosene.
If Piccard and Borschberg prefer fire resistance when they chose to upgrade the batteries of the Solar Impulse, Stanford University’s Advanced Aluminum Battery could be the ideal choice. Even though their demonstration model is still sized to power a mobile phone, its quick charge feature allows it to power a mobile phone for 24 hours with just one minute’s worth of charge. The new aluminum ion rechargeable battery developed at Stanford University is not only less prone to bursting into flames than lithium ion types but can also be built at a fraction of the price. According to Dai Hongjie, a Stanford University chemistry professor and one of the developers of the Advanced Aluminum Battery says that their newfangled batteries won’t catch fire even if you drill through it. Unfortunately, they still are looking for financial backers to fund the mass production of their battery or design a larger prototype that could power an electric car or an electric plane. And whatever rechargeable battery technology Piccard and Borschberg uses, hopefully it would offer a better performance for the Solar Impulse once it resumes its circumnavigation flight in April 2016.