“Because we could create the mold and create a one-pour shell system, that became a fantastic advantage for them,” Northcote said. “They didn't have to worry about adding other weight with other supports.”
Covestro pulled a new material from its development pipeline for the cockpit's door panel: microcell foam, a thinner, more efficient insulation material with a smaller pore size that is being marketed now to appliance manufacturers. The material made its debut in the Solar Impulse project, and Northcote expects to see refrigerators with this technology on the market next year.
The company's thermoplastic PU film, used in the SI2 seat, is finding its way into commercial aircraft, he added. Air-filled, it allows the seat's firmness to be adjustable, especially appealing in first-class cabins.
SI2's windshield is made with polycarbonate films separated by an air gap.
“This was high pressure on us, because they demanded we achieve the visual quality of glass,” Northcote said. “Polycarbonate is great, but for the first time using films we managed to achieve the same quality as they would have had had they had a sparkling glass windscreen. And of course using polycarbonate, that's a fraction of the weight, and it was anti-fogging, anti-misting, anti-scratch — all the things it had to be.”
The technology could potentially be used in automotive applications, where the electrification of vehicles in particular is driving increased demand for lightweight solutions, Northcote said. More attention now is being paid to overcoming the engineering challenges of using polymers in automotive windows.
“To achieve the visual quality of glass has been a very tough engineering challenge that we've overcome now with Solar Impulse,” he said. “We have seen substitution in sun roofs, for example, but still most of the sun roofs are made with glass. Where we've had the major substantial breakthrough is with headlights — I don't think you'll find a glass headlight in the market today, they're all polycarbonate — but the next stage now is windows.”
Supporting Solar Impulse is one part of Covestro's sustainability vision, which includes goals to halve its carbon dioxide emissions by 2025 and improve the lives of 10 million people in underserved markets.
“When we joined [the Solar Impulse project] in 2010, it was really a meeting of minds,” Northcote said. “[CEO Patrick Thomas] saw the vision that Bertrand had of pushing boundaries of science to make the impossible possible very much in line with his own vision of where this industry should be contributing to societal development, environmental development.”
Covestro applies its portfolio of materials in a range of projects aimed at providing inexpensive housing, sanitation and food preservation solutions to disadvantaged areas.
An initiative called Project Sunrise works with the support of Covestro's business units on some of these programs.
“[The idea is] that if we can use this technology that benefits the world in so many ways because of energy efficiency and all of the other things, why is it only at the top echelons of society? Why is it only that part that gets the benefit? Why can't we find business models and ways of taking this technology to the base of the social pyramid, that will help to house the homeless, that will help to stimulate economic growth in poor agricultural areas?” Northcote said.
The team partnered with Habitat for Humanity on providing low-cost, quickly constructed housing made with a PU-cement mix that provides insulation and is able to withstand typhoon-level winds. A thousand houses are currently under construction in Tacloban, the Philippines, with India, Jordan and Iraq among other targets for the technology. And officials in Germany have asked for help housing Syrian refugees.
Northcote emphasized the need for inexpensive but quality shelters.
“There's a huge demand for fast but permanent housing or homes for people, and we've been adamant at this. We don't want an off-the-shelf solution,” he said. “If you're going to house somebody, they have to feel comfortable in it, they have to want to live there. So we've been putting a lot of effort into maintaining a low cost but giving something that people want to live in.”
Covestro materials also are being developed for food preservation applications, to extend the economic value of agricultural products. In areas where cold storage is not common, PU foam insulation can help get more produce to market before it spoils. And polycarbonate solar dryers — imagine a greenhouse that acts as a controlled drying unit — also can extend the life of produce and other foodstuffs.
“It's basically a case of as soon as your tomato is ripe, you've got to get it 30 miles to a market and sell it, or else it's going to be rotten the next day,” Northcote explained.
Like Solar Impulse, demonstrating the capabilities of these programs is the first step to potentially scaling up the technologies.
“The benefit that we have as a corporation is, this is increasing raw material sales into a market we don't touch at the moment; we don't sell polyurethane into that market,” he said. “So if we do flip that trigger that allows us to go in, in large volumes, to build large housing developments, for example, then that's a good avenue for raw material sales for the business unit in the long term.”
Northcote said his team is next looking at what it can do in the U.S. and South America.
“Everywhere is different. Every building code is different. We have to look at things in a very methodical way, so it does take time. But I think the patience and the perseverance is worth it in the long run,” he said. “Because we can build a house in five days that will last for 100 years. So we've got something there that is really valuable but we have to work, we have to create these partnerships that allow us to do it on the scale that we need.”