Solar-Powered Plane To Fly Across The US

After completing a 26-hour flight in 2010 and going from Switzerland to Morocco completely under solar power last year, the Solar Impulse is set to take on its next challenge later this spring. The high-tech plane, powered completely be the sun, will attempt to fly coast to coast across the U.S. starting in May.

On Thursday, Solar Impulse pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg announced that they will take off from Moffett Air Field at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, on May 1 and intend to head east to New York City. Along the way, they’ll make stops in Phoenix, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and either St. Louis, Nashville or Atlanta. They expect the entire trip will take roughly two months to complete.

The Solar Impulse features a massive wingspan of 208 feet, most of which is covered in solar panels. Energy that is collected through those panels is stored in lithium-polymer batteries, which allow the plane to stay aloft even after the sun goes down. Because of its rather large size, the plane flies at a relative low altitude of just 6000 feet and at a cruising speed of about 43 mph. That may not sound like it’s very fast, but considering the entire aircraft is powered by clean energy, it is still pretty impressive.

Obviously we’re a long way from powering commercial airliners with solar power, but this experimental aircraft is a step in the right direction. If all goes well with this flight, the team intends to attempt a round-the-world flight in 2015.

[Photo Credit: Solar Impulse]

Gadling Gear Review: SunVolt Solar Charger

Advances in photovoltaic cell technology in recent years have helped to make solar chargers a viable option for travelers, particularly those visiting destinations that fall off the grid. Smaller, lighter and more efficient solar panels have made it possible for us to keep our favorite gadgets and tech gear charged while on the go. Despite those improvements, however, solar charging isn’t always as reliable as we’d like and there are still some challenges to overcome.

Gomadic, a company that specializes in unique charging solutions and other technology options for travelers, is hoping to take a step forward in this expanding market. Their new SunVolt solar charger promises improved charging times and more efficient use of the sun when compared to similar systems from competitors. In fact, if you believe the marketing hype, the SunVolt can deliver similar charging speeds to a standard wall outlet, quickly powering our electronic equipment using nothing more than clean energy from the sun.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention and that seems to hold true with the SunVolt as well. The charging system was designed and built by Don Cayelli, who was looking for a way to charge his iPad while out on his boat. Cayelli found that most solar chargers incorporated a battery pack, and the suns rays are directed to energizing that battery, which then in turn charges our gadgets. Cayelli’s idea was to remove the battery pack and focus on making an efficient solar panel that is strong enough to charge our devices directly, without the need for any intervening technology.It is evident that a lot of thought went into the design of the SunVolt. For instance, the photovoltaic cells are built directly into a custom carrying case that makes it a breeze to carry the system and all of its included cables with you at all times. Inside the case is a rigid shell that not only protects the panels from harm but also holds it in place when it is ready to capture the light of the sun. The case also allows the panel to be set at a variety of angles to maximize the amount of light that the cells can capture. And when you’re ready to pack up and hit the road, you can collect the whole system in just a matter of seconds.

Like all solar chargers of this type, the SunVolt’s performance is a bit of a mixed bag. In direct sunlight it does indeed generate plenty of power and is capable of quickly and efficiently charging two devices at once. In fact, when it’s working at peak levels, the SunVolt just might be the fastest portable solar charger that I’ve come across. But throw in a little cloud cover, or anything less than direct sunlight, and suddenly charging times slow to a crawl. That is when you’ll wish you had that built-in battery pack, as it would store a charge for when it is most needed, allowing you to charge your gadgets even when there isn’t much sun at all.

Fortunately, the SunVolt does have the ability to use a battery pack as an optional add-on and my test unit had one included. The high-capacity battery was a nice addition, allowing my charger to collect power all day long, then charge my smartphone or camera later in the day. Without the battery, you’ll need to leave your devices plugged into the SunVolt during the brightest part of the day, which may not always be the best time to be without them. The Solar Cache battery pack is an additional $40 expense, but it is well worth the investment for anyone considering the SunVolt as an option.

The SunVolt is clearly a high-quality product, and when it is working at full capacity it is an impressive solar charger to say the least. That said, there are still a few improvements that could be made to future versions. For instance, I would have preferred two built-in USB ports as opposed to the proprietary cable that adds those ports. Extra cables are easy to lose and add unnecessary complexity to a product that should be as simple and straight forward as possible. The SunVolt comes with a variety of other cables as well, including standard, mini and micro USB, plus a 30-pin iPhone/iPad cable. Owners of newer Apple devices will need to bring their own Lightning cable. All of those cables are nice to have on hand, but can start to add up after awhile. Fortunately the SunVolt’s case does make it easier to organize and store them.

The SunVolt is also a bit on the heavy side, which doesn’t exactly make it the best option for all types of travel. For instance, Don Cayelli designed the product for use while sailing and that seems like the perfect activity to carry one of these devices. Campers will find it useful as well and it would be great to have along on a trip to a mountain cabin or any other escape to a remote destination without power. But anyone who likes to travel light, such as backpackers or trekkers, will be disappointed by the weight and bulk of this charging system. For those types of travelers there are other lightweight options available, even if they aren’t as fast and efficient as the SunVolt.

The standard SunVolt model is capable of generating as much as 10w of power and carries a price tag of just $99.95. That’s actually an affordable price point for a product like this one, although as mentioned above the Solar Cache battery pack could add to the cost. A second model, the SunVolt MAX, can crank out an impressive 15w of energy and can actually charge three devices at once, including an iPad. It runs $129.95.

If you’re in the market for a portable and versatile solar charging system, the SunVolt is an excellent option. It is fast, efficient and powerful enough to charge multiple devices at once. It may be a bit on the bulky side, but for campers, sailors and similar types of travelers, it is the perfect way to stay powered up, even while off the grid.

Gadling Gear Review: Solar Chargers For Travel

Keeping all of our electronic gadgets charged while traveling can be a real challenge, particularly if you’re visiting a remote part of the world where electricity is at a premium. But just as the gizmos we carry with us have gotten more sophisticated so have the options for keeping them powered. One of those options is taking a solar charger with us when we hit the road. A solar cell provides clean, efficient and, in theory, limitless power for our tech toys.

Here are two distinctly different solar chargers aimed at very different types of travelers. Both are excellent for what they do, and while they each use light from the sun to create electricity, their similarity pretty much ends there.

Solio Classic2
The Classic2 is Solio’s second-generation, travel solar charger, replacing their older Classic model, which was one of the earliest compact chargers on the market. The Classic2 improves on its predecessor in some key areas making it a much more efficient option to have in your pack when you travel. Those improvements include doubling the battery capacity and adding a full-size USB port integrated into the device. The previous version came with a number of special adapters, which were incredibly inconvenient to carry along on a trip. Since most devices, including smartphones and cameras, now charge via USB, this was an evolutionary, but very welcome, change.

The Classic2 features three small solar cells, each embedded in its own arm. When collapsed the device is small, lightweight and compact. It weighs just 10.1 ounces and easily slips into a backpack, carry-on bag or luggage. When ready to collect energy from the sun, it opens up like a flower, exposing all three cells for maximum efficiency. The energy is then stored in a 3200-mAh internal battery, which in turn is used to charge our devices via the built-in USB port.Solio says that it should take 8-10 hours to charge the Classic2’s internal battery from the sun, but in my testing it was definitely closer to the high side of that estimate, if not longer. Cloudy days and the amount of exposure to direct sunlight can impact that charging time dramatically. Fortunately, the internal battery can also be topped off from a wall socket or from a USB port on a computer. In both cases, it takes roughly six hours to charge the battery.

The built-in USB port on this charger provides up to 1 Amp of power, which puts it on par with a typical wall charger. That means it can charge a smartphone or MP3 player in fairly short order. Solio claims charging an iPhone takes about 90 minutes, although again I found it took a bit longer. It was closer to 2 hours in my testing, although the internal battery did provide nearly three full recharges on an iPhone 4S. It should be noted that the Classic2 is also capable of charging an iPad, although it is a slow process and it will drain the entire charge.

The Solio Classic2 is perfect for travelers who enjoy traveling light and may need to juice up their gadgets a few times while on the road. It’s compact, easy to pack and works as advertised. I’d recommend using it for cellphones, GPS units, MP3 players and point-and-shoot cameras. Anything more than that is likely to provide results that are a bit more frustrating.

Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus Adventure Kit
Larger and more powerful than Solio’s offering, the Guide 10 Plus Adventure Kit from Goal Zero is designed for the adventure traveler that intends to be in the backcountry for an extended period of time. It features twin 9-inch solar panels that are capable of generating up to 7 Watts of power, charging up the included battery pack in as little as 3-4 hours. Like the Solio Classic2, this kit features a built-in USB port capable of putting out a 1 Amp charge but it also includes 4 AA batteries, a rechargeable flashlight and cables that help round out the package, providing everything you need to keep your gadgets charged while living off the grid.

Putting Goal Zero’s solar charger to the test, I found that it wasn’t necessarily faster at charging up my devices than Solio’s much smaller device. That’s in part because they both share that same 1 Amp USB charging port, which made charging times on smartphones and cameras roughly the same. Where the Guide 10 Plus shines is that it can charge its battery pack much more quickly and consistently than the Solio Classic2. Collecting power from the sun is a more viable option with the Guide 10 Plus kit, and while with Solio’s offering it, it was a more uneven experience.

The Guide 10 is considerably larger than the Classic2, although it does fold up into a rather compact form for transport. The solar cells are designed to connect to a backpack so that they can collect the suns rays while hiking throughout the day. That means by the time you make camp in the evening, you’ll have gathered plenty of power to charge your gadgets overnight.

It should be noted that like the Solio Classic2, the Guide 10 kit is more than capable of charging your iPad using nothing but solar power. No matter which device you use, it can be a slow process, particularly with the higher capacity batteries of the iPad 3. The larger solar cells make this a more efficient process on Goal Zero’s offering, however, and that is the option I’d recommend if you absolutely need to keep your tablet powered while in the field.

Both the Classic2 and Guide 10 are viable options for using solar power and I think they are both good at what they do, provided you understand their strengths and limitations ahead of time. The Classic2 is small, compact and easy to carry everywhere. Its battery pack is good for 3-4 recharges of various devices, although it is slow to refill using the sun. On the other hand, the Guide 10 can charge much more quickly and reliably, but it is larger and bulkier to carry with you.

Most travelers will find the $99 Solio Classic2 will fit their needs quite nicely, while backpackers, mountaineers and long distance trekkers will appreciate what Goal Zero’s Guide 10 Adventure Kit delivers. That $159 solution has everything they need to stay powered up for extended journeys and its more rugged construction is designed to stand up to punishment on those kinds of excursions.

It’s great that we’re finally to the point where solar power is a true option for gathering power while traveling.

Solar powered theme park planned for the United Kingdom

Devon England’s Crealy Great Adventure Park has unveiled plans to be the United Kingdom’s first solar powered theme park. The plans involve the installation of 200,000 square feet of solar photovoltaic panels on the roofs of the park’s main buildings. In addition, panels will cover carports providing the dual purpose of sheltering guests’ cars while generating electricity.

The energy generated by the solar panels is expected to meet around 90% of the park’s needs during the peak summer months when sunlight is the brightest. The panels will power both buildings and rides like the park’s family roller coaster, Maximus. Surplus power will be fed into the National Grid.

While the news will likely generate some buzz for the park and increase the small park’s profile, I have to wonder if adding the panels will result in an increase in attendance. At the end of the day, an amusement park’s success is decided by its attractions and the experience it provides. Regardless, it is good to see someone leading sustainability efforts in the amusement industry. Crealy Great Adventure Park can already boast a green track record as it uses bio diesel oil for its vehicles, extracts water from a borehole, and uses local suppliers.

Bonus gear deal: Goal Zero Nomad 7 solar panel + free speaker kit for $99

Looking to recharge your gadgetry on the road, without having to rely on the power grid? The Goal Zero Nomad 7 is a very compact dual-panel solar charger that delivers 7 watts of charging power. This means your phone will charge just as efficiently as when it is plugged in to AC power. With a decent amount of sun, you’ll get your Blackberry from 0 to 100% in just one hour.

The charger delivers power from a 12 volt plug and a USB plug and features a device pocket, keeping your phone, PDA, camera or other gadget out of the sun. I recently tested this in the winter sun, and it charged my phone in under an hour.

Normally, this impressive solar charger retails for $99 – but Goal Zero is taking advantage of the holiday shopping season by throwing in a $40 Rock-Out rechargeable and rugged speaker for free.

We’ll have a full review of this product tomorrow – along with a chance to win yourself a Nomad 7 with a Rock-Out speaker of your own!

To order, or to learn more about other Goal Zero products, head on over to their web site. The free speaker promotion last till the end of December, but keep shipping deadlines in mind if you are shopping for a gift.