Air France KLM Martinair Cargo announced last week that it is partnering with the Dutch Brunel Solar Team to participate in the 2022 Sasol Solar Challenge in South Africa from 09-16SEP22, “in shared pursuit of sustainability and innovation”. What are we actually doing with solar power in the air cargo industry?
First of all, congratulations to Air France KLM Martinair Cargo (AFKLMP) for backing a winning team. The Delft University of Technology, which makes up the Dutch Solar Team, has won every Sasol
event since it first participated in 2014 (and won the interim World Solar Challenge events every other year from 2013-2017, in which it has competed since 2001, with a 70% success rate so far),
so the chances are good.
What is the Sasol Solar Challenge, exactly?
It is a competition held every two years in South Africa, where the world’s talented engineering teams pit their expertise against each other in the challenge to cover as much distance as possible on public roads from Johannesburg to Cape Town, using cars that run on solar power. The event lasts eight days and the teams cover a distance of over 2,500 km. There are strict rules regarding starting order, pause times, and daily cut-off times, and each team tries to get as much ground covered as possible during the race time, and avoid any penalties for late arrival at the finish line. Its counterpart is the World Solar Challenge in Australia, which is carried out every other year, and covers more than 3,000 km of terrain. This year, there are 15 teams participating in the Sasol challenge, of which the majority are South African. The only other team with an aviation link, is Saudi Arabia’s Alfaisal Boeing Solar Car Team, which will be competing for the first time, using a solar powered car that took four years to build and which was funded by Boeing. The Delft team will also be competing against its Belgian neighbors from the University of Leuven, who took the winning title from them in the 2019 World Solar Challenge.
What is Air France KLM Martinair Cargo’s part in this?
AFLKMP will be doing what it does best: logistics. It is responsible for flying the Dutch Solar Team’s solar vehicle, Nuna 11s, from Amsterdam to Johannesburg, and other logistical processes. Naturally, it will be doing this as sustainably as possible, converting the necessary trip fuel into SAF to ensure a minimized carbon footprint. The relationship between KLM and Delft University of Technology dates back to 2019, when they entered into a partnership agreement aimed at making aviation more sustainable, and began joint research into alternative sustainable fuels and energy-efficient aircraft design, such as the Flying-V. (CFG reported: Part 1 & Part 2)
GertJan Roelands, SVP Sales & Distribution Air France KLM Martinair Cargo, stated: “Air France KLM Martinair Cargo feels inspired and connected with the drive and purpose of the Sasol Solar Challenge. The airfreight industry faces the challenge of reducing our collective carbon footprint. Part of our purpose is to drive innovation towards this goal by leading initiatives involving all the players in the industry. From an airline perspective, fleet renewal and the adoption of sustainable aviation fuel are key policy objectives for the short and medium term, bringing us closer to making the necessary change.”
Solar power can do so much more
The original World Solar Challenge, which gave rise to similar challenges such as the Sasol on in South Africa, was triggered by the 1973 oil crisis and the growing awareness of the damaging effects of fossil fuels. Danish inventor, Hans Tholstrup built the first solar-powered car in 1983, and drove it from north to south Australia, in effect founding Australia’s World Solar Challenge. All well and good, but did you know that the first solar-powered plane actually took off a decade earlier? The Astro Flight Sunrise, the world’s first unmanned solar aircraft, embarked on its maiden flight on 04NOV74, at a time when solar panels were only 10% as effective as those of today. In almost 50 years, how far have we come? Despite solar-powered space satellites, when it comes to cargo, the best we have managed up until now, is a cargo capacity of around 120 kg such as in the Sunseeker unmanned solar-powered aircraft. Problems that need solving are battery weights, wingspan requirements, flight speeds, diurnal functionality, and – at the end of the day- the cost of the increasingly more efficient solar panels. These are currently extremely high, hence the limited use for space projects rather than commercial aviation.
In the words of the late Dutch astronaut and Solar Team leader, Wubbo Ockels: “There is only one earth. And there is no spare”. Similar to the Dutch Solar team using each race to learn from and enhance their vehicle, as well as to “inspire as many people as possible to think about sustainability and innovation,” there are other approaches taking shape. On the one hand, forays into solar-powered, aluminum-framed airships, which may be a better option for solar-powered air logistics, and on the other, the many solar-powered drone initiatives being developed.
On the ground, solar-powered trucks are being piloted, as is solar-powered airport equipment such as freight loaders, for example. And then there are the many airports and warehouses around the world, that have begun putting solar panels on their rooves to generate at least part of the electricity they require to operate. We can do more to harness the power of the sun.
Good luck to the Dutch Brunel Solar Team in September!
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