Solar Impulse 2, the world’s first solar-powered aircraft, ushered a new chapter in the history of energy technologies when it took off from Abu Dhabi on March 9, 2015. Using 17,428 solar cells and an energy storage system made of lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries, this technological marvel made a smooth flight across half of the globe. Behind this feat is Solvay Specialty Polymers, which provided more than 6,000 polymer parts on the aircraft and guaranteed its continuous and stable operation.
|Solar Impulse 2 on its flight across the Earth. (Photo Source: Solvay Specialty Polymers)
“Seeing Solar Impulse 2 in action is like watching the Wright Brothers testing their first airplane more than a century ago,” said Dr. Luke C. Du, Solvay Specialty Polymers managing director for Asia. “Its flight gives a big boost to new advanced materials and their technological applications.”
Solvay Specialty Polymer became a technology partner to the Solar Impulse project in 2003 and began supply high-performance chemical materials to satisfy the unique specifications of this experimental aircraft. The high-efficiency IBC solar cells on the wings of Solar Impulse 2 are coated with ECTFE, a light film developed by the company’s R&D department. Having a high grade of transparent, ECTFE is water-proof and resists extreme temperatures. It is an excellent alternative for the heavier glass materials. Solar Impulse 2 is also equipped with li-ion batteries that use Solvay’s Solef® PVDF. This special polymer can significant increase the electrochemical stability of batteries, enabling them to perform under high temperatures. Solef® PVDF is very light yet it retains mechanical consistency.
Solvay Specialty Polymers also offered a diverse range of solutions for the exterior and interior of Solar Impulse 2. Its products are on fuselage, screw fasteners, pneumatic cylinders, cockpit doors, landing gear, and more. With lightness being the absolute foremost requirement, Solvay Specialty Polymers has developed materials that allow this solar-powered aircraft to make its historic flight. The aircraft managed to cruise smoothly above Earth day and night before landing safely in Hawaii for winter.
|Left to right: David K. Ho, Global Market Director; Luke C. Du, Ph.D., Managing Director – Asia; Jun Zhang, Sales Director, Taiwan and South East Asia. (Photo Source: Solvay Specialty Polymers)
Advanced materials – heroes behind the scenes of the new energies sector
While not as noticeable as components, chemical materials play a crucial role in the development of tech products as they are crucial to these products’ overall performances. Solvay Specialty Polymers believes much of the new developments will occur in the field of solar energy as it is the leader in the renewable energies sector. Basing on the creed – “asking more from chemistry,” the company commits to creating innovative solutions for renewable energy industries. Solvay Specialty Polymers has aggressively invested in R&D of advanced materials with focuses on solar power and energy storage systems.
Energy storage technologies
Solvay established its global business unit for li-ion batteries in Asia earlier this year. With li-ion batteries being the most widely used energy storage systems, the focus of innovation is now on their separator that divides the anode and cathode. Technological requirements for the separator’s structure material are high since this component relates to safe operation, efficient charge/discharge cycles, and battery life. Solvay Specialty Polymers’ flagship product, Solef® PVDF, has unique properties that not only resist high temperatures and corrosion but increase the number of charge/discharge cycles as well. Solef® PVDF gets peak performance out of li-ion batteries by ensuring their stability and longevity.
Dr. Du also mentioned that Solvay’s battery unit is working with leading Japanese and South Korean battery suppliers to develop electrolyte for a li-ion flow battery. The aim of this collaborative effort is devise a safer electrolyte liquid capable of conducting more electricity. Furthermore, Solvay Specialty Polymers are developing materials for the membrane electrodes of hydrogen fuel cells.
Solar energy solutions
For Solvay Specialty Polymers, Solar Impulse 2 is the culmination of the company’s progress on solar energy technology. “Products related to alternative energies contain a wide range of materials,” Dr. Du noted. “Technological demands from the energy industries will often lead to advances in material technologies. At the same time, arrivals of new material solutions will initiate new designs in these industries. While developments in both areas may seem like ‘the chicken or the egg’ question, it is evident that they feed off each other.”
The maturation of solar power technologies means that the next developmental focus will be on raising cost/performance (C/P) ratios of products. Power generation equipment would have to be more stable and efficient in converting sunlight into electricity. Solvay Specialty Polymers has a distinct advantage in this area as the leading material technology specialist. The company is able to offer a variety of solutions from package/cover materials to power additives used for manufacturing process. Among its products is ECTFE (fluorinated polymer), which is used on the base substrate of the cutting-edge solar modules powering Solar Impulse 2.
Solvay Special Polymers has developed the Halar® ECTFE film that replaces glass as surface cover material for solar modules. This highly transparent film maximizes solar cells’ electricity generation capabilities and offers excellent mechanical strength against physical damages and deformations. Compared with glass, Halar® ECTFE is lighter and has better chemical resistance. While the development of this material has yet to reach the commercialization stage due to price consideration, it is ready for practical application and is used extensively on Solar Impulse 2.
When asked if an advanced technology can have a market despite being difficult to commercialize, Jun Zhang, Solvay Specialty Polymers sales director for Taiwan and Southeast Asia and who was with Dr. Du during the interview, answered that their innovations are always ahead of demand. “Solvay’s products are often ready for market entry once the demand appears,” said Zhang. “Some of our products do encounter challenges during the commercialization process, but this is how our brand has operated for more than a century.” Zhang’s response reflects Solvay’s R&D spirit based on the guiding principle that “technology leads progress.”
Bright outlook for new energies
Besides C/P ratio, lightness and stability are the most important properties of an alternative energy solution. As the worldwide following of the renewable sector grows, Solvay Specialty Polymers takes advantage of this trend and participate in the development of li-ion batteries for electric (plug-in) vehicles. The company is very optimistic about the future of the electric vehicles as they eventually will all be powered by li-ion batteries that can be recharged from renewable energy sources.
For the next generation of new energy products, Dr. Du believes that aside from having properties mentioned earlier, these products have to be light and durable. They must also have a high conversion efficiency rate and be friendlier to the environment than ever before. Product materials based on water-form solutions, for example, are crucial to this new wave of innovations since they do not pollute the environment as the current, solvent-based materials do. Solvay Specialty Polymers has invested in the R&D of this particular technology and developed sample products for testing (i.e. materials for substrates, package film and separators). The feedback from the early testing is encouraging.
In his interview with EnergyTrend, Dr. Du also revealed that Solvay Specialty Polymers are working on osmotic power. This emerging renewable energy source is based on the osmotic pressured caused by the chemical potential difference between two liquids (i.e. salt and freshwater) that are separated by a permeable membrane. The osmosis and reverse osmosis processes that take place through the membrane generate electricity. Dr. Du said if Japan adopts osmotic power nationwide, the country’s estuaries will be able to produce electricity equivalent to eight nuclear power plants. Presently, Solvay Specialty Polymers is jointly developing this new energy solution with the National University of Singapore and other top R&D teams from around the world.
Strategic vision on the Asia-Pacific market
During the interview, EnergyTrend discovered that Solvay Specialty Polymers has put a lot emphasis on growing the Asian-Pacific market. Dr. Du pointed out that China is currently the top auto-producing nation as well as the largest auto market in the world. At the same time, Asia-Pacific is recognized as the center of global solar panel production and has a growing market for li-ion batteries. Solvay Specialty Polymers is therefore highly attentive to the business opportunities available in this region and has established itself in Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia.
Right now, the company has a worldwide market coverage with more than 1,500 products in its portfolio, among which 90% of them are within the top three of their respective market rankings worldwide. Being in an authoritative position in both R&D and market development, this brand is able to offer its clients excellent, value-added solutions.
Zhang added that in order to cement its presence in Asia-Pacific, Solvay Specialty Polymers has already established a research lab and a manufacturing base in the region. The company will also transfer polymer synthesis technologies from Europe so that it can start R&D of chemical materials in Asia.
Technological leadership and strategic partnership are the two-pronged approach that Solvay Specialty Polymers has taken when it comes to market development. This strategy is further complemented by an accurate understanding of the market trends. The result from all this hard work is the effective promotion of advanced materials for various applications. In sum, having the right market insights and strong relationship with clients allows Solvay Specialty Polymers to cooperate closely with its partners to create revolutionary products.