29 Oct 2018 Story Resource efficiency

Aiming for the stars to hit the sky

When Bertrand Piccard was preparing for the world’s first ever solar-powered flight around the world, he had a problem. Cockpit temperatures were projected to skyrocket from minus 40 to above 40 degrees Celsius between night and day. Staying alive in those conditions would be impossible.

But he was not deterred. His dream to navigate the globe in a solar-powered aircraft to show the world that low-emission travel is not only possible, but necessary, was just beginning.

In partnership with Solar Impulse, Covestro - a leading producer of advanced polymers and high-performance plastics which also supports the Young Champions of the Earth prize - engineer Bernd Rothe was already looking for a solution.

Rothe was researching super light cockpit insulation which could withstand the violent temperature swings and meet the mechanical needs of the aircraft.

Inventing a unique solution

“Solar Impulse was looking for something special,” said Rothe. “Polyurethane foam is considered the best industrially available insulating material. After some research, we designed a polyurethane rigid foam which is strong, yet light enough to be picked up with one finger.”

The unique foam saves 70 times more energy during its lifetime than is required for its production. It is made from small gas bubbles enclosed by polyurethane. By experimenting with different gases trapped inside the cells of the foam, and the type of polyurethane used, the engineers managed to solve multiple challenges at once.

“We were really excited when we worked on this foam, because we realized these characteristics have implications for everyday items as well,” added Rothe. “Not only could we find a solution for the Solar Impulse project, our findings would go beyond this.”

For example, the new thermal insulation significantly improves the performance of refrigerators we have in our kitchens. “The better insulating properties of the foam allow us to significantly decrease the thickness in the walls,” explained Rothe.

#Solvedifferent in our everyday lives

“This means it’s possible for us to increase the volume of the fridge, without using more resources to make bigger fridges. We are not only making it possible to use less materials, we are also improving the efficiency of their insulation.”

In developing countries, only half of food produced reaches consumers on average. The new thermal insulation can also improve cold chains by keeping refrigerated food at cooler temperatures for longer.

“As a project leader for solar impulse, I learned that everything is possible. When we started this project, the goal was to fly without fuel. We did it. It is entirely possible that one day, we will make plastics without oil. We continue to push the boundaries of science to make sure that we no longer push the boundaries of our planet,” he said.

Mark Radka, chief of UN Environment’s Energy and Climate Technology Branch, said: “Our fast-paced lifestyles can no longer come at the cost of our environment. We must pick up the pace on technology innovation to bring sustainable solutions into everything we do.

“From refrigerating our food to lighting our homes, our daily lives too often have an environmental cost. Used wisely, technology can help us live cleaner, more sustainable lives.”

What’s next?

Insights gained from the Solar Impulse project have been analyzed by Covestro and are now merged in a new initiative by the Solar Impulse Foundation: The World Alliance for Efficient Solutions. The World Alliance brings together more than 1200 members to raise environmental awareness within industries.

Together with the support of the Solar Impulse Foundation and companies in the alliance support network, including Covestro, members can submit their efficient and clean solutions to receive the Solar Impulse Efficient Solution Label, and form part of the #1000solutions portfolio. These will be presented at the UN climate conference in December 2018.

“Today there are already thousands of marketable solutions that could promote economic growth and preserve nature at the same time,” said Piccard. “However, they are often hidden in start-ups or research laboratories. Few know that those solutions are just waiting to be applied in a profitable way.”

Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.