A chemical company with local ties is a major partner on a solar-powered airplane.

Why?

"It's not only a question of producing a new plane; it's a question of promoting alternative energy," said Claude Michel, the man heading up Solvay's partnership with the Solar Impulse.

The airplane — which was featured in a report from NPR's Steve Henn in March — is currently wending its way across the U.S.

It has the wingspan of a Boeing 747, yet it weighs less than a car.

It doesn't use a single drop of fossil fuel, but it can fly both day and night (at the tortoise-like pace of about 45 MPH) with just solar cells and lithium batteries.

According to Michel, making all that happen takes a lot of chemical know-how. Solvay has been a partner since 2004, developing the lightweight plastics and energy storage solutions that are integral to keeping Solar Impulse aloft.

The bigger picture, says Michel, is to find applications at sea level for systems proven at nearly 30,000 feet.

"What we can do in the air with this kind of flying laboratory can be done right now on the ground," he said.

Michel will be speaking Monday, June 3, at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The free talk begins at 3 p.m.

You can watch a live stream of the event at that time.