INSIGHT: Proving materials performance in Solar Impulse

02 August 2013 15:57  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--From the “We've done it! It actually took off!” moment in 2009 to July 2013 when pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg completed their solar-powered flight across the US, the Solar Impulse project has always impressed.

Born out of a desire to “place dreams and emotions back at the heart of scientific adventure”, the Solar Impulse project team demonstrated this month that it is possible to fly coast to coast across America without using a drop of fuel.

Chemical companies have been deeply involved with the project from the outset and are keen to talk about how the work and the resources they have committed to the project are likely to pay off.

One of the project’s four main sponsors, Solvay, for instance has had eleven of its products used somewhere in the aeroplane.

Its research has looked at optimising the use of materials in the aircraft’s composite structure and how metal parts can be replaced with lighter-weight plastic components.

Solar Impulse has exposed solar cell and battery technologies to extreme operating environments.

Solvay provided the project with important research and development (R&D) resources to help evaluate plastics and polymer performance.

Some of the advanced speciality polymers used in the project are ready to find applications in the aerospace sector, Solvay CEO Jean-Pierre Clamadieu indicated after the solar-powered aeroplane had landed in New York

The Solar Impulse aeroplane that flew across the US has a carbon fibre honeycomb structure and uses 11,628 monocrystalline silicon cells to charge its lithium-polymer batteries and power four electric motors.

The aircraft has a wingspan of a jumbo jet but is the weight of a small car. The fact that it is able to cover such long distances and to fly both day and night is a triumph.

The plane holds the records for first daytime solar flight and the first made overnight; for the first longer-distance solar flights from its home base in Switzerland to Brussels and to Paris; the first intercontinental solar-powered flight, between Switzerland and Morocco; and now the flight across America.

This July, Solar Impulse flew a total of 3,511 (5,650km) across the continent. It holds the world distance record for solar-powered flight of 936miles from Phoenix in Arizona to Dallas in Texas. Next stop, but not with this single-seater plane, a flight around the world

Bayer MaterialScience is an official partner for the project, one of the four companies in this sponsorship category.

The company says it is providing support for Solar Impulse with technical expertise and its high tech and energy saving lightweight polymers and materials. The products include polyurethane foams and polycarbonate glazing.

French industrial gases group Air Liquide is also an official international supporter.

Piccard himself is an adventurer, it is in his blood and the around the world flight will be his next great challenge. His grandfather Auguste Piccard was the first to travel into the stratosphere by balloon in a pressurised cabin in 1931 and 1932.

His father travelled to the ocean depths diving to 10,916 metres in the Mariannes Abyss.

Bertrand Piccard took up ballooning and made the first non-stop balloon flight around the world with Brian Jones in 1999. They set the record for the longest flight in terms of time and distance.

A flight around the world for the next Solar Impulse aeroplane, HB-SIB is planned for 2015. Work on the aircraft is underway and expected to be completed in late 2013 with test flights to follow in 2014.

“The main goal is to make Piccard’s ‘aircraft of the future’ as light as possible,” Bayer MaterialScience says.” But some other challenges exist as well. The cockpit, for example, must be especially well insulated because the aircraft is exposed to extreme temperature fluctuations. Outside, the thermometer can drop to minus 50 degrees at night and reach plus 50 degrees during the day.”

This is where Bayer MaterialScience’s high performance insulating material Baytherm Microcell comes into play. The company says that it is also responsible for the complete design of the shell of the aircraft’s cockpit.

“We are now deepening our involvement in this project, as we go from materials supplier to system leader,” Bayer MaterialScience CEO Patrick Thomas says.

“To make our vision a reality, we are relying on the expertise and innovative capability of the company,” adds Piccard.

The chemical company has about 30 researchers working in its laboratories in Germany on ideas for lightweight construction and energy efficiency.

In the Solar Impulse, which flew across the US from San Francisco, California, to New York City in six legs, Bayer MaterialScience provided polyurethane components for the cockpit, wing tips and engine casings, as well as polycarbonate for the window.

"This is a great way to showcase our technology and how we work to solve technical problems," Thomas said in an interview in New York with ICIS.

"Unlike a concept car, the Solar Impulse actually had to work. It was about setting targets, collaborating and delivering," he added.

"One of the polyurethane foams used in the Solar Impulse is going to be used in a 3-star rated (highest energy efficiency rating) refrigerators in Europe which will also have thinner walls," he said.

“By writing the next pages in aviation history with solar energy, and voyaging around the world without fuel or pollution, Solar Impulse's ambition is for the world of exploration and innovation to contribute to the cause of renewable energies, to demonstrate the importance of clean technologies for sustainable development; and to place dreams and emotions back at the heart of scientific adventure,” Piccard says in a message on the Solar Impulse web site.

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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