Special report: Record attempt has solar flair

23 June 2014 00:00 Source:ICIS Chemical Business

Soaring above an airbase in Payerne, Switzerland, one July morning in 2010, a solar powered aircraft was about to make history. Some 26 hours later, the prototype plane became the first to stay airborne both day and night using no fuel and producing no emissions.

Over 500 hours of flights – and eight FAI (Fédération aéronautique internationale) World Records – later, and the team behind Solar Impulse has since completed the construction of a second, larger plane and is counting down to its biggest challenge: circumnavigating the globe using only the power of the sun. Solar Impulse 2 was unveiled to the public on 9 April 2014 and took to the skies for its maiden flight on 2 June.

Solar Impulse

Jean Revillard/Rezo.ch

The record-breaking trip showcases the many technologies and materials

Getting such an ambitious project off the ground was certainly no easy undertaking, requiring innovative materials and the combined efforts of some of the world’s leading companies. Over the past decade, Swiss explorer Bertrand Piccard and engineer André Borschberg have steered a team of 50 engineers, 80 partners and around 100 advisors and suppliers in a bid to embark on the 35,000km flight around the world.

The journey started in 2003 when Piccard was invited to speak at an internal event for Belgian-headquartered chemical group Solvay. Born to a family of pioneers and adventurers, he talked of his successful round-the-world flight by air balloon a few years earlier. The record-breaking Orbiter 3 challenge had quite literally proven that the sky was the limit for flights of fancy, and affirmed his vision that a trip around the globe might be possible without expending fossil fuels. The Solvay management team, inspired by his presentation, discussed the project’s potential and the Solar Impulse dream took off.


“If there is one word which defines this kind of project, it’s ‘inspiration’,” says Claude Michel, head of the Solvay Solar Impulse Partnership. “Our world is moving fast and there are many crises and difficulties but Solar Impulse gives the younger generation hope and a positive view on the future. When Bertrand had his vision, he had no solution, no resources, no funding and no team; he just had the strong will of saying ‘I will do it’. It proves that when you pull all your resources together you can really achieve the impossible.

“Chemistry was absolutely necessary to build this plane and this project is providing outstanding visibility – not only for Solvay, Bayer MaterialScience and all the partners but for chemistry as a whole,” says Michel.

Solvay, one of four main partners supporting the project, has invested some 15m Swfr (€12.3m, $16.8m) into Solar Impulse these past ten years – and it has proven an extremely worthwhile investment, he adds.

“This is something the whole industry should be doing,” says Richard Northcote, head of sustainability at German polymer producer Bayer MaterialScience, an official partner on the project. “Solar Impulse has proven that companies working closely together can come up with even better solutions. Partnerships like this are really beneficial – and the industry should start to do more of that in terms of addressing the problems that society faces. I think by putting pressure on companies to come up with even better solutions than we appreciate today is a good thing – it drives innovation.

Solar Impulse

Jean Revillard/Rezo.ch

“There is always a danger that industry will stick its head in the sand instead of ­taking a more long term and therefore sustainable approach. There are alternatives to the way we look at technology today – we’re proving that this can be done,” he says. “We need to invest in alternative and renewable energies, look at lighter materials, and focus on sustainability.”

“The project and partnership is a flagship for innovation and sustainable development,” says Michel. “The values we have in our company are very similar to those carried by the Solar Impulse project: innovation, a pioneering spirit, respect for planet, and a respect for people. We are not just providing products for the project, we are providing solutions. As a technological partner we have been heavily involved in the co-development of the research; we have the technology, products and chemistry to help make the plane fly.”

Central to Piccard’s dream was changing people’s perception towards energy savings and renewables, and to prove that our dependency on fossil fuels could be reduced – all by harnessing existing technologies.

The key objectives for the team were to make the aircraft as light as possible while ensuring optimal performance and efficiency. The materials specified for the project were therefore integral to its success and required close collaboration between the many companies involved in its construction.


Built from a myriad of materials common to applications in the automotive, aviation and refrigeration sectors, Solar Impulse uses of a range of specialty polymers, engineering plastics, carbon fibre composites, foam insulation, lubricants and coatings –all carefully selected because of their mechanical properties and weight.

The sun’s rays will be absorbed by an array of photovoltaic panels to charge onboard batteries and allow the plane to fly both day and night. To compensate for the weight of the batteries, the team strived to make every fixture and fitting as lightweight as possible, while retaining the structural integrity needed to withstand the harsh conditions at high altitudes.

Described as a Flying Laboratory, Solar Impulse showcases innovative technologies and materials on a global stage.

Launching in March 2015, the plane will leave its base in the Arabian Gulf and head east, via India and Myanmar to China. After a five day flight across the Pacific Ocean the route will take Solar Impulse through the US and across the Atlantic and Europe before returning to the Gulf region.

The exact route of the plane is yet to be confirmed but the journey will be completed in stages, allowing the pilot to rest between legs and the iconic aircraft to be seen by as many people as possible on the ground. Its arrival in carefully selected locations around the globe will help spread the message of sustainability and innovation, which is so central to the project.

“The hops are very important for spreading the message – it’s just as important as the actual flight round the world,” adds Northcote. “When Bertrand came up with this idea, people said it couldn’t be done; he wanted to prove the impossible was possible. For a plane to take off with no energy and land with a full battery, it’s quite spectacular.

“The great thing is that once you get your products onto the plane and get them flying around the world, people see the value of what chemical companies can do in terms of achieving these dreams. Then they start to realise that the products that are helping to make this whole voyage successful are the same as those they can buy in everyday household items,” he says.

Despite investing so much time, money and manpower in the project, neither company has been guaranteed a place for all their products on the plane. Each and every material was carefully scrutinized and individually assessed by the Solar Impulse team to ensure it met their strict requirements.

“The project made us look at things differently,” says Northcote. “There were a number of characteristics we had to meet but the weight requirements really forced us into a new way of thinking.

“If you go back through history, if you look at the space shuttle or moon landings, for example, so much innovation came out of these incredible projects and so many inventions contributed to the success of these dreams. Now we take them for granted, of course, as they are part of our everyday life.”

As an example, Northcote points to Bayer’s microcellular foam used to insulate the doors to the redesigned cockpit. Solar Impulse marks its first application but he suggests it will not be too long until exactly the same foam will be taking the latest range of refrigerators to new energy saving performance levels.

“There is a growing consumer-based pull for more sustainable products and new legislation keeps pushing for lower energy consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.

Michel says there has been a similar ripple effect throughout Solvay’s business, with the techniques and research learned on the powertrain and lightweighting of the plane, in particular, being relevant to the automotive and aviation sectors.

“The mobility megatrend means that all manufacturers of planes or cars are looking to develop lightweight solutions,” says Michel. “Solar Impulse’s development has really been a springboard for this, whether it’s in the structure of the plane or in the devices inside.”

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