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5/11/2016 | 2 MINUTE READ

Polymers On Board Round-the-World Solar Flight

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Plastics Technology was on the scene when the pioneering solar-powered Solar Impulse 2 landed in Phoenix, Ariz. on May 2.


For Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the word “impossible” isn’t part of their vocabulary. The two pioneers are currently in the midst of their bid to travel around the world in a solar airplane that is capable of flying day and night without fuel. I was there when the Solar Impulse 2 (Si2) landed in Phoenix Goodyear Airport, Ariz., with Borschberg at the controls, on May 2 at 8:55 pm.


With a wing span greater than a Boeing 747, the weight of a family car, and the engine power of a small motorcycle, the Si2 is reportedly the largest aircraft ever built with such a low weight. The use of polymers was crucial in producing a lightweight plane and prior to the landing in Phoenix, I talked with Richard Northcote, Chief Sustainability Officer at materials supplier Covestro, and learned more about the company’s involvement with the Si2.


“It’s all about reducing energy consumption,” Northcote, pictured said. “When you think about the plane, with a wing span greater than a 747, if it’s not light, it’s never going to get off the ground. And when it gets off the ground, it’s impressive how quickly it does because it’s so light.”


Covestro was responsible for the design and construction of the Si2 cockpit, where polyurethane foam encapsulates the cockpit, helping keep the pilot comfortable in extreme temperatures. Covestro found a way to decrease the size of the pores in the insulation foam by 40% from previously existing materials, fulfilling both the pilot’s needs and Si2’s weight constraints. In addition, the company’s multi-layer polycarbonate windscreen provides scratch-resistant, glass-like performance and thermal insulation at a fraction of the weight of glass.


“I’m delighted to to say that virtually all our product offerings are on the plane, which is absolutely fantastic—the cockpit is polyurethane foam and the great thing about that is you get the insulation property and strength from polyurethane,” Northcote said. “We produced a wind screen for the plane that is polycarbonate so instead of using glass what we manage to do is to match the visual quality of glass but, again, reduce weight significantly over what glass would be.”


Technology developed for Solar Impulse is already used in various every day products in the automotive and refrigeration sectors. In addition, coatings used on the plane are now also being used in many other industrial sector applications.


Prior to the landing, Piccard, initiator and chairman of Si2, talked about the importance of using lightweight materials. Check out the video below:



And here’s the video of the Si2 landing in Phoenix – as the plane approached it was very quiet and then suddenly there’s a light “whoosh” sound. 



Once weather permits, Piccard will pilot the Si2 to the next stop-over and continue crossing of U.S.