Solar: Is it an option for aircrafts and shipping

Solar energy is considered as the ultimate source of energy. In the last few years due to technology and abundant production of silicon, solar technology has become very commercially viable and it is rapidly approaching grid parity.

Effect of this could be seen in transportation also. Numerous solar vehicles have been tried or announced. Some of them are solar airplanes and solar powered ships. As a solar enthusiast, it looks very interesting to me. But, after looking at some of the traditional ‘flagship’ vessels and aircrafts, it is a different story. Some of the details are given below.

Largest aircraft ever built is the Soviet Antonov 225, with a maximum take off weight (MTOW) of 640 Metric Tonnes. But, practically the most widely used heavy aircraft is Boeing 747 with an MTOW of around 450 Metric Tonnes.

Consider the case of this aircraft becoming solar powered. The first choice is to fit solar panels on top of the wings and next, on top of the aircraft itself. How much area could be covered? As per Wikipedia, the wing area is around 550m2. The aircraft has a length of 70 metres and a width of 6 metres. So combining together, totally around 1000m2 would be available. With solar radiation of around 1000W/m2, total available solar energy reaches 1MW typically. For this exercise, we do not care about the cost of the solar cell, so let us consider one of the best triple junction cells at 40% efficiency. After installing, we could get 400KW of electricity.

Coming to the ocean front, the largest ship ever built was Seawise Giant or Knock Nevis with a DWT of 564763 Metric Tonnes. Her length was 458 metres and the deck area was 31541 m2. That one is an oil tanker, where as the largest container ship is Emma Maersk.

Let us repeat the previous exercise, Knock Nevis could collect a maximum of around 32MW of solar energy. With the best solar panels, around 12.8MW of electricity could be produced.

Note that this is the maximum solar power production. We are not at all considering about electricity storage system so that power is available when Sun is not shining.

Now let us see the energy requirement of these aircrafts and ships. Boeing 747 engines could produce around 1000kN of thrust where as it could carry more than 150 Metric Tonnes of fuel. During take off time, the fuel consumption rate is around 12000 US Gallons per hour, that is 10.25 kgs of fuel per second. With an energy density of 43MJ/kg, and a typical turbofan engine efficiency of 35 percent, that comes to 150MW of power production.

Coming back to Emma Maersk. The main engine produces 81MW and electrical generators produce 30MW. Fuel consumption could reach around 20 Metric Tonnes per hour. These ships carry around 5000 to 1000 Metric Tonnes of fuel.

That is the main point. Don’t think about a trip to Hawaii in a solar powered aircraft or cruise liner. A 747 requires around 400 times more power compared to what the best solar panels could produce, where as Emma Maersk requires around 8 times more. Even though solar could not be used for primary power, it could be used for a lot of auxiliary power applications.

Correction:The word ‘aircraft’ is both singular and plural. As per correct English, ‘aircrafts’ is not a correct word.


Published by Anand Sivaram (आनन्दः )

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