National Press Club

Scientists are perfecting solar-power plane, experts say

June 21, 2013 | By Monica Coleman |

Scientists are testing HB-SIA, a prototype aircraft created by the Solar Impulse team and partners that requires no fuel, a panel of chemistry experts said Tuesday at a National Press Club Newsmaker event.

The single seat solar plane has the wingspan of a 747, the weight of a mid-size car and the operating power of a small scooter, the scientists said.

“Turning a dream into a project, things become really difficult,” said Claude Michel, 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, the experts said. 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, Michel said.

The plane looks like a huge glider, with a 200-foot wingspan and a total weight of 3,000 pounds. It runs on high-energy lithium batteries and travels up 40 mph, Michel said.

“The success of the Solar Impulse was enabled by advance materials in chemistry,” said George Corbin, head of research and development 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.

The HB-SIA, which traveled to Washington on Sunday, 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.