INSIGHT: Groundbreaking ideas take flight

09 July 2010 15:51  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

Solar Impulse plane in flightLONDON (ICIS news)--When your aim is to fly around the world, using only sunlight for propulsion, you are going to need the lightest and strongest materials  and some of the most advanced solar technology.

The first Solar Impulse plane (HB-SIA)  a gentle giant with the wingspan of an airliner (63m) but the weight of a small car (1,600kg)  took to the summer skies this week over Switzerland, destined for the history books.

Soaring to a height of 8,500m, the aircraft, powered solely by the 12,000 solar cells on its wings and four electric engines producing just 10 horsepower each, absorbed sunlight until about two hours from dusk.

After that, it relied on battery power and its pilot’s skill to fly through the night before drawing more energy from the sun’s rays in the morning.

The scale of the achievement should not be underestimated. Materials and technologies have been pushed to the limit.

This is a groundbreaking as well as a breathtaking project, not surprisingly linked to the products and expertise of major chemicals producers. (See a description of the project and the build-up to the first night flight here as well as commentary on solar power.)

Belgium’s Solvay is the main partner for Solar Impulse and supplies materials for 6,000 parts that help the revolutionary plane fly. These range from high-strength plastics for bolts and bearings to foaming agents, battery additives and housing for the aircraft’s instruments.

Bayer MaterialScience is a recent official sponsor. Its polyurethane foam has been used in the cockpit cladding, the engine cowling and the wings. A thin polycarbonate film has been used in the cockpit windows.

Solar Impulse's flight has been seven years in the making, but the project still has a long way to run. It is proving the suitability of materials to significant extremes of physical and environmental stress. But it is also pushing the boundaries of perceptions of just what might be achievable if we think outside the box.

Expertise gained from early flights will be harnessed in the construction of the next Solar Impulse plane: the one that will eventually attempt an around-the-world mission.

“I have just flown more than 26 hours without using a drop of fuel and without causing any pollution!” pilot and co-founder of the project André Borschberg said after landing. He was in the air for 26 hours and nine minutes.

He described watching the battery charge levels in the aircraft rise as the solar panels absorbed energy from the sun as it gained altitude during the day, and his feeling of joy at seeing the sun rise and the energy start to circulate in the solar panels again after the night flight.

Co-founder Bertrand Picard said the flight gave credibility to speeches he and Borschberg had given over the years about renewable energy and “clean techs”.

The project is a test bed for materials and systems as well as its pilots.

“Solar Impulse is above all a symbol for all of us, generating maximum support for technologies and positive attitude towards renewable energies in order to ensure the energy and ecological future of our planet,” says the Belgium-based chemicals and materials group Solvay.

The company supports the project financially but also plays an active role offering technical solutions and know-how, including forecasting and simulation skills for materials in extreme environments. The other main partners in the project are Omega and Deutsche Bank.

A host of scientific, specialised and other supporters help provide a format for the sharing of ideas and expertise. And it is this active involvement of a broad range of suppliers and sponsors that makes the project so fascinating.

Bayer MaterialScience says that more of its products will be used in the next Solar Impulse aircraft.

“The company is working flat out on the development of further ultra-lightweight materials,” it said on Friday. Its carbon nanotubes could be used to save weight but add strength to the structural components, for instance.

The major target of the cooperation, a Bayer spokesman told Insight this week, “is to develop tailor-made, lightweight, high-performance materials as the new solar-powered plane will weigh less than 1,600 kg and thus be lighter than an Audi A6”.

Solar Impulse is not a flight of fancy but a unique demonstration of what can be achieved using advanced materials, design, electronics and telemetry.

It pushes the boundaries of sustainability and opens up the imagination to what might just be achievable.

The next target for the project is a trip across the Atlantic, weather permitting.

A second prototype is scheduled to fly around the world in 2013 in five, five-day stages, travelling at an average speed of 70 km/h.

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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