Solar Impulse flies into a greener future

There are few genuine visionaries in the engineering world that are really striving to change the world. Ask most people and Elon Musk probably features pretty high up the list developing driverless electric cars, reusable space launch rockets and even a hyperloop. While all are impressive, these are all still in development.

However, combining the roles of adventurer and engineer is Bertrand Piccard, who achieved his goal last year of flying a solar powered aircraft around the world. If you ever hear Piccard speak at an event, or get the chance to talk to him, pretty quickly it becomes clear that visionary is a pretty good description of the man who genuinely wants to, and some say already has, change the world. So what is his message – move over fossil fuel as solar is here?

“We are not fighting against the oil industry,” he said. “We would not have all the advanced materials that allowed us to fly around the world without the petrochemical industry.

“We will still be using oil for at least the next 50 years, but the goal is not to waste it. Oil companies are part of the solution. But, to change something, you need to offer something better.”

There is no doubt that Piccard would like to see the dramatic reduction of oil at the petrol pump, as burning oil, he says, is a waste of the valuable resource. He does say, however, that the petrochemical industry is key in the transition to a cleaner future, by enabling the production of lightweight materials that the automotive so eagerly craves.

For him though, the internal combustion engine is an inefficient antiquated technology that is ripe for replacement.

“We have 97% efficiency on our electrical motors,” he said. “On a car, a combustion engine has 27% efficiency, so 73% of the gasoline you put in your tank is lost, while we lose 3%. So you can see that the future can be completely changed. We need innovation that is more energy efficient.

“The electrical car is a huge market for the materials industry. But these cars have to be different from normal cars. The goal is not to take a normal car and replace the engine, and get rid of the exhaust system. No, you need new materials, new aerodynamics and new ways to build them.”

For Solar Impulse, Piccard has been in a unique position of being told, categorically, that the idea of a solar powered human carrying aircraft was impossible. When he then proceeded to explain that he didn’t just want to demonstrate one flying, but circumnavigate the globe powered by sunlight alone, reactions varied from laughter to worry about his mental condition.

“People asked me if I was completely crazy,” he said. “But, I said from the outset, ‘this is the goal’, because if we don’t say that upfront, we will never achieve the project. We have to burn the bridges behind us so we are obliged to always go forward.”

Arrival in Abu Dhabi at the end of the epic journey

However, not everyone thought Piccard was mad and Solvay saw Solar Impulse as the perfect platform to develop lightweight material technologies. Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, CEO of Solvay, called Solar Impulse, ‘Solvay’s flying lab’ and now wants the innovative solutions that have been developed for the programme to be taken in to other markets to help answer the challenges of clean energy and CO2 emission reduction.

The partnership has been in place for 15 years, and had broadly resulted in 15 material products being flown on board. These vary from carbon fibre composites to clear plastic films to thermoplastics in applications that generally require high performance but ultra-lightweight performance. These have been used everywhere from batteries to hydraulic cylinders to equipment housing to protecting the solar cells.

Clamadieu said: “The idea was always to use the innovations developed for Solar Impulse in other markets. Many of these materials have been developed for aerospace but why not implement them in automotive?”

An example of this materials technology transfer is how the wing parts of Solar Impulse are attached. Here, nuts and bolts are reportedly injection moulded from Solvay’s KetaSpire PEEK, to deliver good mechanical properties while meeting all necessary flammability and toxicity requirements. The material has already been picked up and is being used in the production of the Airbus A380. It’s hoped the material could be rolled out to build lightweight multi-material assemblies for car structures.

“We need to look at the material innovations we have done for Solar Impulse and turn them in to a reality for more industries and applications,” said Clamadieu. “The idea was always that Solar Impulse would help propel them in to a number of markets.”

This cross-pollination of skills and experience is something that Piccard has been particularly adept at effectively bringing together. When he first started out developing Solar Impulse in 2003, he chose to visit boat yards rather than aircraft makers. Half the reason was that he was fed up with being told it was impossible by seasoned aerospace engineers, but the second was far more practical.

“Boat builders knew how to use carbon fibre,” he said. “Aerospace engineers had no idea how to use carbon fibre back then. In the ship yards, equally, they had no idea how to make a plane. For me, that was an extremely interesting synergy. Bringing together people that are not identical.”

These synergies seem to be a fundamental underlying strategy for Piccard when he seeks out to develop innovation.

“Innovation is not just having new ideas,” he said. “Innovation is when you get rid of your beliefs, when you get rid of certainties and habits, and then you are free to go off the tracks and find something new.”

As Piccard touched down last July in Abu Dhabi, successfully completing ‘the impossible’, he reflected on the achievement and what it meant, and should mean.

“Solar Impulse was not built to carry passengers,” he said. “It was built to carry a message. As I was watching my four propellers turning, there was no fuel and no pollution. So, the reality is renewable technology is available today.

“The worst moment of every flight was landing because you fly several days and nights, you make no pollution, you fly powered by the sun. You get the impression you are in the future. Then suddenly you are back in the world that burns a million tonnes of oil every hour and you see nothing has changed. But you have change in your mind and soul. This is always difficult. Every landing was like a jump back in past.”

Bertrand Piccard has since set up a world alliance for clean technologies to bring together all various stakeholders and give them one collective voice called the World Alliance for Clean Technologies.