Summary of article: Use of C-K method in the Solar Impulse project

Why a summary?

In order to have a better understanding of the C-K method introduced during the innovation course (PIMS) by Thomas Gillier, some students have been asked to write a summary of few articles about the application of the C-K method. The summary below is about the use of this method in the Solar Impulse project.

Article reference

-Way of the Solar Impulse Project-
Revisiting an Inspiring Design Thinking Process at the Light of a DKCP Process in the C-K Framework

Article written by Dr. Patrick CORSI & Claude MICHEL
Published in January 2015


The Solar Impulse project was born in Swisstzerland in 1999 around the following concept « A machine that flies on no fossil fuel ». Twelve years later a historical flight takes place over Paris with a landing at Le Bourget. Inbetween an actual innovation process has allowed the Solar Impulse team to break several dominant thinking anchored in the industry and to design a plane that is not a plane.

The main idea was to use solar energy through solar panels for the propulsion of the plane but the first bottleneck* concerning the night flight appeared soon. Thanks to a C-K approach of the problem it has been highlighted that the potential energy* of the plane could be an alternative source of energy when the sun is gone. The first rupture of thinking was then to consider a parabolic flight algorithm* to optimize the use of this potential energy. In order to solve the entire issue, 400kg of lithium based batteries has been added to complete the night flight. However this parabolic flight involved a second bottleneck related to the oxygen supply of the cabin. Thanks to the « state of the art » approach of the C-K method, two options have been founded. The first one consisted in a oxygen mask while the second one used a molecular sieve* that enriches and generates enough oxygen when in high altitude. The weight of the mask option and the know-how of Solvay (main partner) in chemistery led naturally to the selection of the molecular sieve option. This technical solution was also involved in an entire rethinking of the cabin design where the armchair was suspended to the careening.

All along the innovation process that led to those solutions several others dominant thinkings (DT) were found. The following table shows the answers the Solar Impulse team found to overcome those constraints:

DT1 – A plane is a heavy body, as it should carry its own energy To catch and store the energy available all around
DT2 – Plane structure and interior protection are two distinct issues Biomimicry: some nature’s and structural shells protect an organism living inside
DT3 – An energy tank comes in 3D volumes Solar cells can be 2D when stuck to the plane’s envelope
DT4 – Plane Propulsion is single source (Kerosene or else, but choose) Day flight = Solar energy

Night flight = Potential energy and batteries

DT5 – While flying it’s only possible to consume energy Solar energy can be enough for the plane propulsion and the recharging of batteries
DT6 – Oxygen availability and high elevation: two mutually exclusive issues Molecular sieve nets enrich the little air available O2 so to breathe normally

To illustrate this table by an example we can refer to the situation where one of the manufacturer (a leader in the field of light glider manufacturing) said the machine wouldn’t fly because it was far too big and far too light. Then the Solar Impulse team contacted a racing boat manufacturer who won several  boat races by the past and this new partner responded to the challenge with their carbon fiber expertise. This example shows how strong can some dominant thinking be and how they impact the chance of achievement of a project.

We can find below the C-K diagram of the Solar Impulse Project:


The Solar Impulse project was also a real process of collaboration between 70 experts through multicultural teams. One of the reason of success was definitely the respect of the four rule of a collective creative undertaking:

  1. To explore the whole conceptual potential of the initial concept
  2. To involve and support people in a rule breaking process
  3. To enable the relevant knowledge activation, acquisition and production
  4. To manage the collective acceptance and legitimacy of rules rebuilding

Finally, this adventure had a real impact on several technical sectors thanks to the technical innovations it had led. Among those advances we can mention side results like, thermal isolation, way of capturing solar energy, domestic solar, encapsulation, lighter structures that replace metal by other materials having similar performances, lubricant, structural computation or flight algorithms.

Currently the Solar Impulse project is carried by the plane called Solar Impulse 2 which is involved in the challenge of a round trip around the world. It has achieved 19 957 km so far and has landed in Hawaï last July. The batteries have to be repaired after an overheating issue.

*Translation of technical vocabulary:
Bottleneck: expression anglosaxone pour un goulot d’étranglement/un passage étroit/une difficulté.
Potential energy: Correspond à l’énergie accumulé par un objet lorsqu’il prend de la hauteur (l’eau des barrage hydrolique par exemple).
Flight algorithm: Algorithme de vol. Plan de vol de l’appareil (trajectoire, altitude, variations,…).
Molecular sieve: Membrane moléculaire.

Summary by Karel Hubert
Mastère Spécialisé Management et Marketing des marchés de l’énergie, Alternant Chef de projet à Symbio FCell



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