Editorial Feature

Solar Powered Aircraft: Current Knowledge and Advances

This article considers the current knowledge and recent advances in the development of solar-powered aircraft.

solar, solar energy, solar powered, aircraft, solar powered aircarft, cells, airplanes

Image Credit: BokehStore/Shutterstock.com

An essential development in the field of solar-powered aircraft flight took place when the test flights for the Airbus Zephyr aircraft were completed, which stayed in the air for a week, ensuring internet provision to people.

History of Solar Aviation

During the 1970s fuel crisis, solar energy via photovoltaic panels was identified as an alternative energy source for humanity. Solar-powered airplanes have lately piqued the curiosity of the general public and the aviation industry due to their usage as an environmentally friendly alternative.

Sunrise, the world's first solar-powered airplane, took to the skies in 1974. Solar-powered airplanes have come a long way since then. Solar-powered airplanes, as opposed to ordinary airplanes, capture solar irradiance and transform it into electrical energy using photovoltaic panels.

Preference of Solar Powered Aircrafts Over Traditional Aircrafts

Owing to the inexhaustible supply of solar electricity, solar-powered airplanes have a significant potential for high altitude and long-endurance (HALE) missions. Solar-powered aircraft can be constructed to fly close to space; that is, just above the atmospheric flight zone but below the spacecraft flight region (around 20–100 km).

They can cruise perpetually for an extended period, even years, depending on the airplane system's durability and sunshine circumstances, something conventional airplanes cannot achieve owing to their operational limitations. Another major advantage is the massive reduction in emissions, with almost 80% fewer carbon emissions than a traditional aircraft.

Working Mechanisms

The main idea is to cover a certain region of the airplane with solar cells, often the wings and tail section. When exposed to the rays of the sun, the photovoltaic panels convert it into electrical energy. The quantity of energy generated is determined by factors like the orientation of the panels to the sun, and the intensity of sunlight.

A circuit with a configurable microprocessor handles the power transmission output. The electricity regulation and transmission mechanism guarantee maximum energy output by the solar panels. The electricity generated is mostly used for propelling the aircraft and onboard electronics. The excess energy is utilized to recharge the batteries which are used in the absence of low sunlight.

Video Credit: JAKA YAN SURYANA CHANNEL/Youtube.com

Advancements in Solar Powered Aircrafts

Photovoltaic (PV) cells, concentrated solar power (CSP), and solar thermal collectors for heating and cooling (SHC) are three primary technologies utilized for solar energy applications. PV technology is widely recognized as a way of producing electricity by employing photovoltaic panels made of an array of solar cells to transform solar energy into electron flow. This technology's initial practical application was to energize communication satellites and spacecraft.

Solar batteries' development patterns over the last century have been driven by supplementary energy storage needs and portable gadgets. Batteries with enhanced energy densities of 400–600 W h/kg and more than 500 cycles at standard quality recharge rates are now available thanks to technological improvement.

Solar fuel cells have been created to generate power in stationary systems, as have other rival technological approaches. Current research and development efforts are centered on the creation of dependable, reduced-cost, high-performance fuel cell network elements for vehicle applications.

Technological developments are being rapidly made to enhance and widen the applicability of solar aviation. Organic photovoltaics and quantum dots are essential in this regard. Organic photovoltaics (OPVs) are manufactured from organic materials that are varied and adaptable, providing limitless opportunities to improve a wide variety of features. Organic molecules are inexpensive; they have an excellent light absorption capability, allowing coatings as thin as several hundred nm to be used for this purpose.

Quantum dots have the potential to improve the efficiency of solar cells conversion in at least two ways: by expanding the energy gap of solar panels to collect more sunlight in the spectral region, and by producing more voltage from a single solar particle. Solar cells built on quantum dots could potentially transform more than 65 percent of the sun's energy into electrical energy, increasing the efficiency by almost two times.

Nanomaterials are also considered to be essential in this regard. Nanomaterials like nanowires and nanoparticles offer novel potential in solar devices. Nano meter-sized objects have very high surface areas per unit volume, allowing for the formation of very large interfacial regions.

Latest News

Zephyr, an Airbus photo voltaic-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), was utilized to transmit wireless broadband during a flight test over Arizona. Airbus was evaluating the 'High Altitude Platform Station' (HAPS) onboard the British-built UAV during an 18-day journey in the stratosphere, 76,100 feet above the earth's surface.

The successful test might lay the groundwork for a squadron of Zephyr aircraft to bring 5G and 6G mobile broadband to the world's most distant locations, or to provide a quick transmission augmentation during a significant event in a heavily populous area. Capitalizing on this, the South Korean government has also approved work on a similar type of solar-powered drone.

Future Challenges and Perspective

Solar energy has the potential to be a significant component of a potential carbon-free power sector in aerospace. The Solar Impulse program revealed ambitions to create a novel solar-powered airplane capable of doing some of the activities normally performed by satellite. 

However, scientific developments and innovations are required to overcome the current systems' poor efficiency and expensive cost. Keeping in mind that the generation of a solar panel fluctuates with temperature and humidity, a maximum power point tracker (MPPT) is typically required to maximize the utilization of solar insolation.

Interview: Microbiota Survival on Photovoltaic Panel Materials

Most energy conversion systems may lose some energy; for example, the overall energy utilization ratio of solar-powered airplanes is just 11 percent, implying that approximately 89 percent of solar irradiance is wasted. All current research is focused on increasing energy production and reducing its wastage via the fabrication of effective solar cells.

Updraft is a significant environmental resource that is being researched. Solar-powered airplanes can reach great heights while expending little energy by following an updraft. To save energy, the SoLong solar aircraft was remotely flown and attained considerable height by pursuing an updraft.

In short, ever since the first solar-powered air flight in 1974, the solar-powered aviation industry is being developed to meet the cost and energy demands while maximizing the aerodynamic efficiency to perform missions efficiently. Photovoltaic aircraft fly at higher elevations for long periods, but with relatively limited applications, such as a tiny wing loading for cargo. Subsystems such as energy, aerodynamics, propulsive systems, and control mechanisms should be thoroughly researched to improve their performance and broaden their range of applications.

Further Reading

Jamshed, W. et al., 2021. Thermal expansion optimization in solar aircraft using tangent hyperbolic hybrid nanofluid: a solar thermal application. Journal of Materials Research and Technology, pp. 985-1006. 14(1). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmrt.2021.06.031

Loughran, J., 2021. Solar-powered aircraft flown for nearly three weeks without landing. [Online]
Available at: https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2021/10/solar-powered-aircraft-flown-for-nearly-three-weeks-without-landing/
[Accessed 5 January 2022].

R Güntürkün, R. & ÇINAR, S., 2021. Using alternative energy in aircraft. International Journal of Energy Applications and Technologies, 8(4), pp. 222-227. Available at: https://dergipark.org.tr/en/pub/ijeat/issue/66272/1033611

Wu, M., Shi, Z., Xiao, T. & Ang, H., 2021. Effect of wingtip connection on the energy and flight endurance performance of solar aircraft. Aerospace Science and Technology, Volume 108. 106404. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ast.2020.106404

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Ibtisam Abbasi

Written by

Ibtisam Abbasi

Ibtisam graduated from the Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering. During his academic career, he has worked on several research projects and has successfully managed several co-curricular events such as the International World Space Week and the International Conference on Aerospace Engineering. Having won an English prose competition during his undergraduate degree, Ibtisam has always been keenly interested in research, writing, and editing. Soon after his graduation, he joined AzoNetwork as a freelancer to sharpen his skills. Ibtisam loves to travel, especially visiting the countryside. He has always been a sports fan and loves to watch tennis, soccer, and cricket. Born in Pakistan, Ibtisam one day hopes to travel all over the world.


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