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Swiss unveils prototype of solar-powered plane

SWISS adventurer Bertrand Piccard yesterday unveiled the prototype of a solar-powered plane he plans to fly around the world to highlight the potential of alternative energy sources.

The prototype, HB-SIA, has the wingspan of a jumbo jet but weighs only as much as an average family car.

It is powered by four electric motors and designed to fly day and night by saving surplus energy from its 24,000 solar cells in high-performance batteries.

"Yesterday it was a dream. Today it is a plane. Tomorrow it will be an ambassador of renewable energy," Piccard told a news conference at Duebendorf airfield near Zurich. "If an aircraft is able to fly day and night without fuel, propelled solely by solar energy, let no one come and claim that is impossible to do the same thing for motor vehicles, heating and air conditioning systems and computers," Piccard said.

Piccard, who made history in 1999 by flying around the world non-stop in a hot-air balloon, hopes the prototype will make its first test flights later this year before a night flight in 2010 over Switzerland.

Yesterday's unveiling came after six years' work by 50 engineers and technicians on the so-called Solar Impulse, which has a number of high profile backers including Deutsche Bank and watch maker Omega.

The plane combines novel light-weight materials strong enough to resist pressures at high altitude, and solar technology.

A planned successor, HB-SIB, will likely be even bigger, enabling Piccard and fellow pilot Andre Borschberg to fly around the world in five stages along a path similar to the one he took in his Orbiter 3 balloon a decade ago.

"Through this project we are proclaiming our conviction that a pioneering spirit and political vision can together change society and put an end to fossil fuel dependency," Piccard said.


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