The UFO spotted approaching the nation’s capital early Sunday morning was actually HB-SIA, a prototype aircraft created by the Solar Impulse team and partners. The single seat solar plane requires no fuel, has the wingspan of a 747, the weight of a mid-size car and the operating power of a small scooter, according to a panel of chemistry experts who spoke at the National Press Club’s Newsmaker on Tuesday.
“Turning a dream into a project, things become really difficult,” said Claude Michel, Ph.D., Solvay’s Solar Impulse project manager. The goal of the Solar Impulse project is to produce an airplane that will fly around the world using only solar power, the dream of Swiss aeronaut Bertrand Piccard.
Developing a 24-hour solar plane is not the only goal. Promoting greater energy efficiency is also a major focus. The two initiatives go hand-in-hand, as the first goal cannot be achieved without the second. To accomplish these objectives, design and weight are crucial, said Michel.
The plane looks like a huge glider, with a wingspan of more than 60 meters (roughly 200 feet), 400 kilograms of high-energy lithium batteries, a total weight of only 1,600 kilograms (3,000 lbs.) and travels 40-60 kilometers an hour, according to Michel. The HB-SIA has one more stop to successfully complete its journey across the United States.
The trip has had problems, mainly weather, an issue that will have to be addressed before embarking on a world tour across the oceans. Michel said humidity will be the greatest challenge for the next plane.
It is not the aviation industry, but the chemical industry that is meeting the seemingly insurmountable hurdles. “The success of the Solar Impulse was enabled by advance materials in chemistry,” said George Corbin, Ph.D., head of RD&T at Solvay Specialty Polymers. Solvay has more than 20 applications and over 6,000 parts on the plane, he added.
The panel agreed Solvay’s chemical applications helped solve problems in energy capture, storage and utilization. A special polymer forms a thin film providing longtime protection and mechanical benefits to fragile solar cells and an adhesive polymer supplies the wings with a strong mechanical bond and great performance in the environment, Corbin explained. He said innovations in electrolytes and electrodes made significant improvements in the original battery system.
“It is needless to say that this plane doesn’t fly without chemistry,” agreed Darcy Gentlemen, Ph.D., manager of public policy communications at the American Chemical Society (ACS).
“Chemists have always been consumer driven, very pragmatic . . . they want to make things that are useful,” he said. Pursuits of unexpected results have started many industries, such as the pharmaceutical industry, textile and plastics, Gentleman explained.
He said Solar Impulse may someday lead to a 24/7 flight around the world with no fossil fuel, help produce better electric cars and home energy savings.
Though serious challenges lie ahead, look how far they’ve come. Gentleman said that the plane is a symbol of hope that it may happen.