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updated 9/8/2010 9:47:07 AM ET 2010-09-08T13:47:07

No matter how you look at it, flying around the world is a big deal. Especially in a solar airplane. We’ll check it out. Today, on Engineering Works! Listen to the a href=“http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu/2010/flying-in-the-sunshine/”> podcast.

Engineers in Switzerland are getting ready for the first flight around the world in an solar-powered airplane. It’s pretty much the last word in high technology.

The plane looks like a sailplane on steroids. Its wingspan is wider than a Boeing 777, but it weighs about as much as an average car. It’s powered by four electric motors that run on electricity from big lithium-ion batteries that make up about a-quarter of the plane’s weight.

Those batteries are charged by almost 12,000 solar cells on the plane’s wings and tail surfaces. Really efficient. The electricity they produce is only enough to light about 200 small light bulbs. Picture that: flying around the world on the electricity it takes to light up a big Christmas tree.

The airplane’s skin is made from carbon fiber based on material used in the hull of the America’s Cup yacht, Alinghi. In some places it’s only a hundredth of a millimeter thick. That’s not much.

In early July, it had its first successful 24-hour flight. At night, when the sun wasn’t shining, the motors ran on battery power and the plane glided on thermal currents. Now the team is planning three flights across Switzerland, which they hope to embark upon in September.

We’re not flying, but it’s still time for us to take off. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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