Plastics Help Enable Round the World Solar Flight

Professor Plastics

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Airplane flying with solar panels

An airplane that flies around the world powered only by the sun. How cool is that? And what’s that got to do with plastics? Lots. Read on …

The Solar Impulse is a lightweight aircraft that can fly both day and night powered by solar panels stretched across its wings. The aircraft completed a transcontinental flight from Europe to Africa in 2012 and a record-breaking solar-powered flight across the U.S. in 2013.

The airplane’s builders learned a lot and came back even stronger in 2015 with the Solar Impulse 2. After taking off in Abu Dhabi, the Solar Impulse 2 embarked on its most ambitious mission to date: a flight around the world. After stopping in numerous far-flung places, battery overheating interrupted the tour in July—in Hawaii. (Most unfortunately, my teaching schedule does not allow me to tag along. Plus there’s space on board for only one person: the pilot.)

So, to travel using only the sun’s power, do you think that would require a big, heavy, lumbering aircraft? Or a sleek, lightweight vessel made with tough, strong, space-age materials? Uh, yeah … the latter.

That’s where plastics come in. The structure of the Solar Impulse 2, which has a larger wingspan than a Boeing 747 but weighs only about as much as a medium size SUV, is composed primarily of a combination of tough, lightweight plastics and carbon fiber. In addition, plastic films adhere to the solar panels to help protect the panels against the elements.

Plastics are used to manufacture key parts of the lightweight batteries, as well as insulate them. And many parts traditionally made from heavier materials—bearings, axles, hinges, screws, nuts, washers—are made with high performance plastics. Even landing gear parts!

And remember: it gets pretty cold up there. And hot. The cockpit faces extreme temperatures, from -40°F at night to +104°F during the day. Bayer MaterialScience, an official sponsor of the Solar Impulse project, was responsible for the complete design of the cockpit shell, including lightweight structural foam plastics for insulation, a plastic composite for the door locks, and extremely thin yet break-resistant plastics for cockpit windows.

The lone pilot sat in his tiny cabin for five consecutive days and nights in the air (yikes!), en route from Nagoya, Japan, to Hawaii. Fortunately, he can recline the seat for a bit of exercise.

The suit worn by the pilot is made with a plastic fiber yarn infused with bioactive minerals that stimulate blood microcirculation and improve muscle performance, according to its maker Solvay, the first main partner of Solar Impulse. Solvay actually contributed more than 6,000 parts to the airplane, most of them plastics.

What an adventure. And there’s more to come when the flight resumes next year on its trek around the world. As Professor Plastics, I’m proud that plastics help make it possible.

Follow the flights here.