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The Engineering of Sport 10

Materials World magazine
5 Aug 2014
Ballet dancer

Just when you think you know a sport, it is placed under a lens. Eoin Redahan spent a day at the Engineering of Sport event in Sheffield, UK.

Sometimes an article reads like a Walt Whitman poem or, to be more cutting, a list of ingredients. On special occasions, this is unavoidable, as was the case with the Engineering of Sport 10. There was so much being talked about that it would be rude not to enlist at least half a dozen technologies.

How, for example, could any respected journalist not mention the role accelerometers play in perfecting ballet’s demi-plié movement, especially given the Materials World demographic? So, the next time you are leotard-bound and badly need biobased feedback, place accelerometers on your wrist and lower back as recommended by a researcher at Griffith University, in Australia. Be patient and your basic routines will improve.

Other scientists were snow-bent on shaving hundredths of a second from elite skiers’ times. A team at the Leonardo Tribology Centre, in Sheffield, drew inspiration from the lotus leaf’s microstructure to develop a ski base with a superhydrophobic surface. To do this, they embossed ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene with a steel mesh at 150°C for 15 minutes. The reduced water adhesion makes the ski bases that little bit lighter.

The intricacies of impact
Every conceivable sport seemed to be taken apart and placed under microscopic scrutiny. The University of Southern Mississippi’s David Krzeminski assessed the failures of American football helmets in minute detail. He explained that shells don’t just crack when players collide, or when the passage of time and weather erode the outer surface. It seems reconditioning can also damage the helmet’s outer shell. According to Krzeminski, solvents such as n-butyl acetate cause swelling and voids when painted on the helmet’s outer covering, causing changes in the material properties. When you consider the outer shell is the only part that cannot be replaced, this surface degradation becomes more significant.

By contrast, auxetic materials – those that expand when pulled – can actually provide extra protection in helmets and shin pads. Sheffield Hallam University’s Andrew Alderson has created auxetic honeycomb foams from polypropylene and polyurethane to bolster the indentation resistance and fracture toughness of sports equipment. But these materials don’t just raise their protective noggins in honeycomb foams. They can also be incorporated into microporous polymers, fabrics, films and monofilaments.

Sporting excellence = 98% perspiration + 2% materials science
Thankfully, as the brain brimmed with the dangerous friction of acrylic tennis courts and the best ways to predict the service life of trainers, mercy came in an easy-to-understand panel discussion on technology in elite sport.

The speakers believe engineering can make a 1–2% difference in athletic performance – tiny margins that sift winners from the competitive mass. Troy Flanagan, US Ski and Snowboard Performance Director, played a two-second audio track in which a series of beeps echoed in quick succession. Those 30 beeps, he said, signified the time differences between places one and 30 in the men’s downhill skiing event in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Flanagan helped create an Alpine ski suit with 17% less aerodynamic drag than previous models – a suit worn by three gold medallists. While the researchers conducted 106 wind tunnel tests and other research to perfect their prototype, they were also indebted to alchemy of chance. A manufacturing error was responsible for the discovery of the top-secret fabric that boasted such unprecedented performance. So what made this material so magical?

‘Only two people know what we did with the fabric, he said, ‘and I am one of them.’ However, Flanagan refused to divulge the fabric’s secret to anyone else, even the US coaches. He smiled, ‘Coaches get drunk in bars and tell people from other countries.’

Inevitably, whenever novel materials and designs are discussed, the technological doping question will always tag along. Peter Bentley, who develops equipment for the British Sailing Team, noted, ‘My remit is to gain a competitive advantage for Team GB.’

Moreover, Bentley took it as a compliment when sailing authorities outlawed one of his innovations back in 1996, not because it didn’t conform to regulations, but because it was so effective. He used a tennis analogy to describe his attitude towards the constant pushing of bounds. ‘If part of the ball touches the line, it’s in,’ he said. ‘That’s good enough for me.’

Multi-platform sports grounds
What if you could play football and basketball and power your floodlights on the same floorspace? That is exactly what Cablean Technology’s sports field intends. The product, which also involves Dutch partner organisations Delft University of Technology and InnoSportNL, consists of horizontal panels that rotate to create artificial grass, multi-purpose plastic and solar panel surfaces.