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Piccard and Borschberg
Solar Impulse co-founders Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg salute the crowd after Piccard landed the Solar Impulse 2 airplane in Seville, Spain. (Credit: Zayed Energy Prize via Twitter)

The world’s most traveled fuel-free airplane, Solar Impulse 2, made better time than expected and landed in Spain today, leaving only 10 percent of its round-the-world odyssey to go.

“The Atlantic has always been the symbol of going from the Old World to the New World,” Solar Impulse co-founder and pilot Bertrand Piccard said after landing in Seville. “And everybody has tried to cross the Atlantic – with sailboats, steamboats, airships, airplanes, balloons, even rowboats and kitesurfs. Today, it’s a solar-powered airplane for the first time ever, flying electric, with no fuel and no pollution.”

Piccard was expected to take 90 hours to cross from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Seville, but he made the trip in only a little more than 71 hours.

“Only” is a relative term: A commercial airline flight from New York to Seville takes less than 11 hours, including a stopover in Madrid. But speed isn’t the point of Solar Impulse’s round-the-world odyssey. Rather, it’s sustainability.

The $150 million, sponsor-funded Solar Impulse project is meant to throw a spotlight on environmentally friendly technologies, including the more than 17,000 solar cells and more than 800 pounds of advanced lithium polymer batteries that kept the plane going day and night.

Thanks to ultra-lightweight composite materials, Solar Impulse 2 weighs only about as much as a minivan (5,000 pounds) but has a wider wingspan than a Boeing 747 (236 feet vs. 224 feet). It’s an upgraded version of a plane that made a coast-to-coast flight across America in 2013.

Solar Impulse 2 typically cruises at around 40 mph, but the plane made better time for this trip due to calm weather and favorable winds.

The odyssey began back in March 2015 in Abu Dhabi, and featured stopovers in Oman, India, Myanmar, China, Japan and Hawaii. During the five-day Pacific crossing to Hawaii, the batteries overheated – forcing a nine-month delay while the team made repairs and waited for the return of favorable weather. Solar Impulse 2 took to the air again this April, and flew to California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

The Swiss-led Solar Impulse team says the outbound trip from Seville will head for either Egypt or Greece, depending on the weather. If all goes well, the plane should complete the 22,000-mile circuit next month in Abu Dhabi. Piccard has been alternating the piloting duties with Solar Impulse’s other co-founder, Andre Borschberg, which means Borschberg will be taking the next flight.

Piccard and Borschberg already have started work on the next chapter of their clean-tech campaign: While Piccard was flying over the Atlantic, Solar Impulse announced that the pilots would establish a non-governmental organization called the International Committee of Clean Technologies.

“The goal of this committee is to continue the legacy Solar Impulse started, promoting concrete energy efficient solutions in order to solve many of the challenges facing society today,” the Solar Impulse team said in its announcement.

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