The Solar Impulse Is Changing Business

Mounting solar panels on a wing (Image credit: Solvay)

Today, the Solar Impulse resumed its bid to become the first airplane to circumnavigate the globe powered only by the Sun. The business backstory took flight more than a decade ago.

When Bertrand Piccard visited Belgian chemicals giant Solvay with his nascent plans for a solar-powered trip around the world in 2003, it was a homecoming of sorts: Company founder Ernest Solvay had backed the physics research of Piccard’s grandfather in 1920.

“Before we got to specifics, we saw the values Bertrand’s project represented: Pioneering spirit, innovation, respect for the planet and for mankind,” said Claude Michel, Head of the Solvay Solar Impulse Project.

“Those are the same values we live at Solvay.”

The company committed to supporting Piccard on the spot, not just as a financial sponsor, but more importantly as a partner in developing solutions that would enable the aircraft to fly day and night on solar energy alone. It was December 17th, exactly one century after the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight at Kitty Hawk.

Solvay spent most 2004 working with Andre Borschberg, Piccard’s partner, and its various business practices, and identified 50 projects, mainly to make the plane as light as possible, and to capture as well as store solar energy. The project team was kept purposefully small, drawing instead on volunteer teams from its businesses organized by functional areas, like propulsion, airframe, and energy generation.

“For instance, we looked at the controlling module for the engine, which was usually done in aluminum or titanium, and we said we could do it in a lightweighting polymer,” explained Paul Prozeller, Senior Technical Specialist for Materials, High Performance Polymers.

“Then we had to find a way to make it.”

“Once we committed to an option, we were focused,” added Michel. “In the project assembly hall, signs hung saying ’Always weigh your parts.’ Weight was an obsession.”

The project led to a number of innovations in areas such as specialty polymers, and chemicals for the electrolytes in batteries. As other companies joined the project — Omega, Bayer, Schindler, and ABB — there emerged interesting co-development opportunities, like polyurethane with Bayer (now Covestro), for which Solvay contributed its expertise in foaming agents.

“It’s a luxury for us advanced sciences people to get to do laboratory work, where you get the opportunity to fail without risk because you’re inventing,” said Prozeller.

Three years later, half of those 50 projects met their goals, though all of them yielded insights for commercial applications for the company. Solvay contributed 15 products that are being used in 25 applications and 6,000 parts on the airplane and, through its acquisition of Cytec, is now also present in its structural parts.

“We have a binder of know-how on improving battery life, and we were able to replace thousands of metal components with high-performance and lightweight polymers,” Prozeller explained. “Commercial airplanes and automobiles have the same challenges of balancing power with weight.”

He noted also that blending polymers and composites could yield parts that are not only more economical to produce, but easier to replace.

“This 12-year project helped us develop and rally around our CEO’s global strategy to deliver the power management and lightweighting solutions necessary for clean mobility,” said Michel.

“If we have proven that we can fly all day and night, nobody can say that our technology couldn’t be applied in other, less-demanding instances.”