Olympic chemistry: Athletes get boost from high tech gear
Olympic athletes may not be thinking of polyaromatic amides and phase diagrams while they race down the slope or skate across the ice this week in Salt Lake City, but polymer chemistry and materials science have improved the performance of skis, ice skates, hockey sticks, sports apparel and other gear used in the winter games.
According to an article in the February 4 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, the science behind high-tech gear will be working hard to boost the performance of this winter's Olympian contenders.
Skis are engineered with a custom blend of materials -- which could include wood, wood composite, fiberglass, titanium, carbon fibers, and DuPont's Kevlar, among others -- to make them lightweight, responsive, strong and durable.
Kevlar is often used to silence the vibrations transmitted by fiberglass and carbon fibers in skis, said Brian E. Foy, a DuPont senior marketing specialist and a manger of Kevlar sports applications. "You don't want skis to chatter -- to continue vibrating after impact," he says. Kevlar helps the skis stay in contact with the snow and conserves the skier's energy, Foy added.
Before taking to the slopes, most top-level skiers apply a thin layer of wax to the bottom of their skis to act as a lubricant for warm-weather skiing or to provide a slick, smooth surface in hard snow, mentioned Timothy C. Donnelly, Ph.D., a ski enthusiast and chemistry lecturer at the University of California, Davis. Donnelly indicated that some Olympic medal winners have used the all-condition wax he formulated, called Super HotSauce, which reacts to changing conditions from the top to the bottom of a mountain.
According to Todd Brooker, NBC sports commentator and former World Cup skier, some skiers come to the mountain with two sets of skis waxed for different snow conditions. "Missing the wax could mean as much as two or three seconds in total time, which is the difference between first place and 30th," he said.
Advanced materials also help improve ice skates and sticks for hockey players, athletes who are often rough on their equipment. Ice skates must be lightweight and form-fitting, yet provide support and impact resistance for quick stops and turns on the ice. Manufacturers stabilize the outside of a skate with materials like composites of fiberglass, carbon and graphite fibers and Kevlar. To create a perfect fit inside the skate, they turn to heat-moldable foams and carbon fibers.
A balance of materials, ranging from wood-carbon-glass composites to composites of graphite and Kevlar, is used to ensure the proper flexibility of the hockey stick, which is important because many players actually bend their stick backward as they hit the puck to give the shot more power. If the stick is too rigid, it may shatter on the impact of a high-speed slap shot.
A copy of the article, "Olympic Science," published in the Feb. 4 issue of Chemical & Engineering News is available to reporters by contacting Beverly Hassell at 202-872-4065 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.