Solvay parts in solar-power plane

Products from local manufacturer Solvay Advanced Polymers will make history next week as they help launch an entirely solar-powered airplane on its cross-country American voyage.

As one of the first sponsors of the project, the polymers giant has been helping for nearly a decade to develop components for the Solar Impulse. The Solar Impulse is a small plane with a massive wingspan covered in solar panels that enables it to fly without using fossil fuels, said David Klucsik, Solvay’s director of North American communications.

“The biggest accomplishment, I think, is it is the first solar-powered aircraft to fly day and night,” he said.

The Solar Impulse has already completed an intercontinental flight in Europe and has broken a record by completing a flight lasting more than 26 hours.

Several Solvay technologies have contributed to the success of the Solar Impulse.

Locally, Solvay Specialty Polymers in Marietta was responsible for manufacturing Radel for the plane. The light-weight, heavy duty plastic was used in areas that would traditionally be made of metal on a plane, explained Wally Kandel, plant manager at Solvay Marietta.

“Our product goes into a lot of applications for metal replacement,” he said. “The whole science is how you get as much energy as possible from the sun to the movement of the plane. You have to have a lot of efficiency and as little weight as possible.”

Specifically the Radel is used to house the throttle and the instrument panel, said Klucsik.

The result is a plane about 71 feet long with a 208-foot wingspan and a weight comparable to that of a small car, he said.

The project has been a source of great pride to the employees at the Marietta plant, many of whom are planning a trip to see the plane on its flight across America, which begins next Wednesday, weather permitting, said Kandel.

The plane already has stops planned in Washington, D.C. and New York City, said Klucsik.

In addition to the lightweight plastics produced locally, other Solvay plants have produced lubricants that work under a variety of conditions, lithium battery components that improve energy storage life and a super thin coating for the more than 10,000 solar panels that span the plane’s wings.

Though the plane has already achieved many significant feats, perhaps the most emotional one was seeing the plane’s first flight in Switzerland in 2009, said Claude Michel, of Brussels, Belgium, the Solar Impulse Manager for Solvay.

“It was probably the shortest and smallest flight. The pilot just took off and landed after about 40 seconds. But it really proved that all the choices and options we took technically were the right ones,” said Michel.

The next phase of the project is taking the lessons learned from the Solar Impulse, and building a second solar-powered plane with the goal of flying around the world, said Klucsik. That plane is currently being built and will hopefully make that voyage in 2015, he added.

However, the purpose of Solvay’s involvement in the project was never to shift the company’s focus to aviation or to claim that solar-powered planes will supplant current fossil fuel ones, said company officials.

“The purpose really is to demonstrate that innovation can be harnessed to accomplish something that would otherwise be though impossible,” said Klucsik.