How do plastics make planes fly without fuel?

Let's us not underestimate the power of plastics says Dr. Sadoun, GPCA

Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun
Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun

Let's us not underestimate the power of plastics, it is creating a revolution to the extent of a solar-powered plane

Imagine travelling around the world on a plane that powers itself without a drop of fuel. While this may sound like a flight of fancy to most people, this is the reality for Bertrand Piccard.

This summer, Piccard and business partner Andre Borschberg, completed their first solar-powered flight across the United States as part of their Solar Impulse project.

While the plane has the wingspan of a jet, it is as light as a small car, largely because the materials used to build the plane are unique.

The body is made up of polymers, commonly referred to as plastic; the lithium batteries that store solar energy are made up of a polymer blend; the cockpit, wing tips and engine casings largely contain polyethane components, while the windows are made from polycarbonate sheets.
If the Solar Impulse aircraft were to have been built with more conventional materials like aluminium, it is quite unlikely that the plane would have taken off. Today, however this project has achieved success simply through of the use of plastics, which illustrates the outstanding capability of this petrochemical product to transform our daily lives.

Recognizing the importance of plastics, the Gulf States are increasingly using their oil wealth to manufacture polymer products.

In 2012, the GCC produced 20.8 million tonnes of polymers, representing an 18% market share of the region’s petrochemicals portfolio. Over three quarters of GCC polymers are exported abroad, generating valuable revenues for the Gulf countries.

Are we, in the GCC, close to developing the materials that make up the Solar Impulse aircraft?

Perhaps, sooner than we think. The most common polymer produced in the Gulf is currently polyethylene — the kind of plastic used in food packaging, toys and wire insulation— with 16.4 million tonnes produced last year alone. GPCA estimates forecast that polyethylene is a stable product that will grow by at an average of 7% annually till 2018.

In the next few years, GCC governments will realise multi-billion dollar petrochemicals expansion plans.

This will enable greater diversification of the region’s polymer products portfolio over the next five years, to include nearly two dozen polymer products, and hundreds of polymer grades.

The region’s petrochemicals producers will face challenges ahead — analysts predict that the era of cheap gas is coming to an end. Clearly, producers will have to find strategies in every part of their business that will help them reach their potential.

From November 19- 21, the 8th GPCA Annual Forum will be held on the theme of “Innovation: The Foundation for Chemical Value Chain Leadership”. Top executives from leading petrochemical companies will provide their insights on how the industry can evolve in every aspect of their business.

His Royal Highness Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, will deliver the inaugural address of the 8th Annual Gulf Petrochemicals & Chemicals Association (GPCA) Forum.

Right now, the GCC petrochemical industry produces 115.9 million tonnes of products. We predict that this industry will grow to produce 134.5 million tonnes of products over the next five years. There are two aspects to this future. One, we need to grow the production and second we need to produce innovative products that stand as a benchmark to the global petrochemical industry.

This industry has potential but we need to figure out how to grow in a way that is inventive, sustainable and responsible. This transformation will not happen overnight, but we do hope that you will join us on this journey.

Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is the Secretary General of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA). GPCA is a dedicated non-profit association serving its members with industry data and information resources. It is the first such association to represent the interests of the petrochemicals and chemicals industries in the Arabian Gulf.

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Oil & Gas Middle East - September 2020

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