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Circumnavigating the globe using only the power of the sun

Circumnavigating the globe using only the power of the sun

Mar 10, 2015

Circumnavigating the globe without a single drop of fuel is a vision that will soon become reality. The futuristic Solar Impulse aircraft is scheduled to do just that in 2015 solely on solar power. It has to be particularly lightweight and strong. Specialty plastics from Bayer MaterialScience make it possible.

At 72 meters, the wingspan rivals that of the largest passenger aircraft, yet the tiny cabin beneath the wings offers space for only a single person, the pilot. It is a very special aircraft that is embarking on an equally unique mission: the first manned flight around the world without fuel. Powered by nothing but the sun’s energy, the ultra-lightweight Solar Impulse 2 plane is scheduled to perform this pioneering feat in 2015.

The project was initiated more than ten years ago by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, both of Switzerland. They want to show the tremendous potential harbored by new technologies for energy efficiency and renewable energies.

They began demonstrating this in 2010 with a previous model of the aircraft, which proved that is possible to fly day and night on solar power alone and successfully completed numerous test flights – initially in Europe, with flights from Switzerland to Paris and Brussels, for instance, and later to Spain and Morocco. A flight across the United States followed in 2013. The decisive second model was then presented in April 2014 and will set off on its epic journey the following year powered by more than 17,000 solar cells on its wings.

Its success is highly dependent on the appropriate materials. The aircraft has to be lightweight to compensate for the weight of the batteries. These store the electricity generated by the solar cells so that the Solar Impulse can also be in the air at night. And it has to be very strong in order to withstand the extreme conditions at high altitudes.

Innovative materials
An official project partner since 2010, Bayer MaterialScience developed innovative, tailored plastics for both aircraft. Furthermore, the company has sole responsibility for the complete design of the cockpit shell of the second aircraft. One of the things Bayer MaterialScience is providing for this purpose is an innovative, extremely high-performance insulating material. Highly efficient insulation is particularly important for the aircraft, because it is subject to extreme temperature fluctuations.

Other materials and solutions from Bayer MaterialScience are also used. For example, thin panels made from the transparent, high-performance plastic polycarbonate for the cockpit window, or rigid polyurethane foam for insulating the batteries. Last but not least, there are raw materials for adhesives and for the shimmering silvery coating that covers large portions of the aircraft.

Flying laboratory
Bayer MaterialScience also provides such materials to other markets and industries, e.g. for lightweight construction in the automotive industry, for building insulation and for thermal management in consumer electronics. The involvement in the Solar Impulse project ultimately benefits the further development of key sectors. Bayer MaterialScience can use the “flying laboratory” to further improve its existing products and solutions, test new things and thus come up with new potential applications.

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