'Pioneering spirit' solves environmental problems: Swiss adventurer

2017/09/12 15:38:13 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
'Pioneering spirit' solves environmental problems: Swiss adventurer

By Lee Hsin-Yin, staff reporter

While most airplanes carry passengers, the aircraft of Swiss pilot and adventurer Bertrand Piccard carries a message.

Piccard came up with and piloted the Solar Impulse project, in which he and compatriot André Borschberg took turns flying a solar-powered aircraft around the world in 2016. The intention was to promote clean energy, he says, emphasizing that innovation is possible even under the most extreme circumstances.

"The (project's) first goal was not to have an airplane transporting people, it was to have a demonstration, a proof, that clean technologies, efficient technologies and renewable energies, can be used in the most incredible situation," Piccard said during the World Congress on Information Technology in Taipei from Sept. 10-13.

The aim of the project was to develop a symbol that could promote an appealing pioneering and innovative spirit, particularly in the field of renewable energy and clean technologies, he told CNA.

(Documentary of the historic flight. Video courtesy of Solar Impulse)

Solar Impulse started in 1999 with Piccard's vision of building an airplane capable of flying day and night without using any fuel, propelled solely by solar energy.

However, it took his team more than 10 years of funding, simulations, construction and testing to build two unique aircraft -- Solar Impulse 1 and 2.

After numerous trial flights with both aircraft, Piccard and Borschberg eventually flew the Solar Impulse 2 around the world in 23 days, covering 43,041 km in 17 legs - crossing Asia, the Pacific Ocean, the United States, the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

(Round-the-world flight by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg. Graphic courtesy of Solar Impulse)

The aircraft were not only part of an historic adventure but also left a legacy that ultimately benefits human beings.

For instance, the 25-kilogram-heavy cockpit designed by Covestro, a materials science spin-off established by German company Bayer, has had an on-the-ground impact.

Covestro's foam insulation protects the pilots and batteries onboard the jet in lieu of a heating system, and although it has 40 percent smaller pores than typical foam insulation, it has higher structural strength and remains lightweight, according to the Solar Impulse Foundation.

In the wake of Piccard's journey, that polyurethane foam has been integrated into lightweight composite panels to build thousands of homes in disaster-prone areas.

In addition to being a source of inspiration to fix problems in the real world, the jet itself is a "flying laboratory," Piccard says, one that demonstrates the feasibility of innovative initiatives no matter how impossible they might seem at first -- if people are willing to put their minds to a task.

The first step in breaking from the norm is to abandon old ways of thinking and doing, he stressed.

"Pioneering spirit is risky, but the status quo is dangerous," said Piccard, adding that this is especially true for Taiwan, where most of its energy is imported and natural resources are being depleted.

While the country is engaged in a heated debate over ways to achieve a nuclear free future by 2025, Piccard suggests that people also need to focus on energy efficiency.

If the Taiwanese government could actively promote environmentally-friendly initiatives such as energy neutral houses and electric vehicles, it would not only cut its energy budget, it would also create a market that could sustain profits, according to Piccard.

(View of Solar Impulse 2's solar cells flying above Abu Dhabi. Photo courtesy of Solar Impulse)

"Today, for the first time, we have a fantastic conjunction between the economy and ecology and we can protect the environment in a profitable way," he said.

Taking that idea a step further, Piccard said, human beings should think about future environmental problems and identify solutions now.

Solar Impulse Foundation plans to collect 1,000 solutions to protect the environment worldwide and in a profitable way, which Piccard said will be presented at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Poland next year.

The foundation has so far collected 400 solutions -- two from Taiwanese companies -- electric scooter maker Gogoro Inc. and Sunnyfounder, a crowdfunding startup in which individuals can invest in solar energy to make profit, Piccard said.

Once deemed by the foundation to be profitable, environmental solutions submitted will be promoted globally to gain greater publicity, he said, recognizing the fact that Taiwan is trying to show the world it has the potential to promote changes that are good for the environment.

With a pioneering spirit, the impossible can be made possible, Piccard said.

"We are the Wright Brothers in a new cycle of aviation," Piccard said, adding that he hopes his endeavors inspire future generations to embrace a pioneering spirit and green energy initiatives.

"People would say, wow, if they did it in the sky with their airplane, we can do it on the ground," he said.


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