Thursday, March 31, 2005

Solar Powered Flight

A bit of background: I have been enthralled with the idea of learning to fly an airplane for quite some time. My dream is not to fly a 747, but rather something much smaller, like a Cessna or Piper. Then, a few years back, with a little prodding from my wife, I wandered into the local airport to inquire about flying lessons. Well nothing has happened yet, but it did rekindle my interest. Along the way, I discovered the cottage industry of homebuilt (or kit-built) aircraft. At last I found a way to own my own aircraft without requiring me to win the lottery first! Or so I thought. This is still a very expensive proposition, learning to fly, owning an airplane, etc. I'm still trying to get used to the cost of home ownership, so this would be a very noticeable expense.

But I still think about it. A lot.

One of the things I notice about homebuilt aircraft is that they often ship kits without an engine. This is because the engine choices are varied. Some people choose certified aircraft engines, like stuff built from Lycoming. Others restore antique car engines, most notably the Corvair or Volkswagon beetle engines, in one form or another. There are also new engines being made by companies like Rotax and Jaiburu that fit certain niche markets as well. All of these engines are piston engines, burning gasoline.

A few other things I noted: Beginner pilots typically get what is called a VFR rating. That stands for Visual Flight Rules, and loosely means daytime flying, in clear skies. There are other restrictions too, but essentially, no night flying, and not without good visibility. Another pilot rating, VFR OTT stands for VFR Over The Top, which means you can fly over a bunch of clouds, provided you can find a clear patch to land in at your destination. So essentially, most piloting is done on a clear day, with lots of sunshine. (Keep in mind I'm not talking about commercial air traffic here.)

Also, airplanes tend to have a lot of surface area on the wings - usually about 100 square feet or more. That's a lot of room that could be used for solar panels. How far along is this technology now? Can it produce enough current to power an electric motor to consistently put out about 100 hp? (I know electric motors typically don't measure output in horsepower, but I'm unschooled in this, so bear with me.) My point is, a small plane has modest requirements on an engine. Sustained 100 hp on a sunny day would do just fine, in most cases. Bring along enough battery power to last 45 mins to an hour, and you have a good safety backup in case the weather turns bad.

For most recreational pilots who typically fly for the fun of it, such a plane would be a great thing. Motor gliders are pretty close to this idea too. Imagine being able to fly a complete trip without any fuel costs. Or environmental impact, which is my real goal with this.

If a viable electric motor was developed for aircraft like this, it could grow in popularity without the automobile industry paying much attention to it. In my opinion, that would probably be a good thing. I don't trust the car makers of today to offer me REAL environmental solutions. They are too entrenched into what they currently provide. Even a switch to hydrogen is so they can continue to operate under the same business model. A car that does not require fuel is not something they have chosen to pursue. I suppose they have their reasons. I have mine for wanting that very thing.

Life under the sea

Okay, so maybe it is because I am suffering from a cold, or maybe it's because of the latest study released by the UN that says we are going to Hell in a handbasket, or one too many space novels, but I'm starting to think it might be a good idea to start living underwater. Living underwater would be a lot like living in space, except with gravity, and it would be an order of magnitude less dangerous. Or at least, it COULD be.

A few assumptions are in order: First, I am talking about something that is only about fifty or sixty feet below the water surface, permanently mounted on the ocean floor, in a sheltered cove somewhere moderately remote. At this depth, the water does not get overly cold, and sunlight is still able to penetrate, at least in an ambient sense. Also, it is shallow enough not to require pressurization, meaning a stairwell (or elevator for the financially gifted) to the surface is possible, without getting the bends. I'm not interested in being immersed in an inky, cold, wet environment. I'm interested in a self sufficient, isolated, non-polluting establishment that can operate as a research lab in addition to providing long term accomodations.

With the decision to not pressurize, I am faced with building a structure that is able to withstand the weight of all that water. This shouldn't be too difficult though. Submarines regularly go much deeper. In fact, a lot of tech can probably be taken from submarines for this project.

Ideally, I would like lots of windows, to observe things on the ocean floor. Maybe a hyperbaric chamber can be used as a transition area to move from the non-pressurized living quarters into a pressurized work area. This work area would have scuba equipment and an open area to enter the water from. We could get really ambitious, and start an underwater garden of sorts. I haven't really given this part much thought.

One key facet to this project would be the floating dock, held in place above the establishment by the access tubes (either for air ventilation, or for the stairway/elevator.) The floating platform would have a docking area for boats or small planes to raft against, making supply deliveries easy. Also, it would be a good place to put some solar and wind generators - 2 things I would expect to get lots of in the ideal setting. In addition to that, perhaps an underwater turbine can generate energy from tidal movements. It would be important to keep the floating dock very open and airy, since the underwater environment will probably tend to be somewhat confined.

Another challenge would be to build a reverse osmosis water purifier, as well as a heating tank for a steady supply of hot drinking water. I have no idea on how to deal with any waste or garbage at this point. That would also have to be dealt with though (understatement of the week.)

Anyway, if anyone else has thoughts to add to this, I'd be happy to hear them.