The chemistry behind winter sports
From medal-winning athletic gear to your everyday ski boot, a lot of high-tech engineering goes into the materials used to make winter sports equipment. Guess which molecules help you enjoy the snowy slopes with ever increasing comfort and security?
The technology behind the materials that make up winter sports equipment has evolved tremendously since these activities became widely practiced some 40 to 50 years ago. Just think that ski poles used to be made from glass fiber composites and ski boots of rigid plastic which were heavy and not very resilient.
Composites in everyone’s closet
Today, sophisticated composites and thermoplastics have replaced these outdated materials. And Solvay is more often than not at the forefront of the latest technologies behind these molecules that make for lighter, more resistant parts. One well-known example: carbon fiber composites. “Composites offer an excellent balance between performance and weight,” explains Mark Steele, Global Technical Service Director for Solvay’s Industrial Business Line. “Over the last 30 years, carbon fiber reinforced composites have been progressively replacing materials such as metal, wood and glass composites in objects like fishing rods and tennis rackets.”
This high performance material was first used by industries that could afford it when it was still quite expensive – namely aerospace and Formula 1 – but today, thanks to the increase in production volumes, prices have come down, and consequently “most households have carbon fiber items, whether they know it or not,” adds Mark. Concerning winter sports, most ski poles today are made of carbon fiber, and a lot of skis as well. Even high-end ski boots include some carbon fiber for added stiffness. And the added bonus with this material is that it looks good! Tight-woven carbon fiber fabrics have that smooth and even look that pleases the eye of consumers, whatever their level of athletic performance.
That being said…
Solvay has historically always primarily focused on high-end uses for its materials. The Group’s carbon fiber has been tried and tested on high performance devices such as competition race cars, yachts and bobsleighs. As a matter of fact, Solvay is the provider of carbon fiber composites for the company that manufactures bobsleighs for USA Bobsled and Skeleton, provider of international competition-grade equipment. “Bobsleighs are high performance structures,” explains Mark. “They are formed into complex shapes that need to be aerodynamic, light, stiff and highly resistant, while using as few parts as possible. These types of high-performance uses are where we can really make a difference with our materials and expertise. We don’t just provide the composites, we offer assistance in processing the material and finding new manufacturing methods to make these ever more complex shapes.”
Longer fibers, better resistance
The same goes for another high performance product portfolio Solvay has been working on recently: Long Fiber Thermoplastics, or LFT. LFT technology has been around for a few decades but has started to be extended to engineering plastics and high performance materials more recently. This has broadened the number of markets and applications in which LFT products can be used to provide affordable lightweight solutions; applications available to everyday consumers include ski boot structures and ski bindings. “Since the early 2000s, manufacturers have been looking to extend that technology to push the boundaries of thermo-mechanical performances and metal replacement,” says Eric Martin, Global Business Manager at Long Fiber Thermoplastics, Solvay.
The particularity with LFT, as its name indicates, comes from the length of the fibers used as reinforcement in the plastic. The raw material comes in 9-millimeter pellets containing fibers of that same length (various types of plastic and fibers can be used here) – and those are really long fibers! “This is a well-known, well-established technology, and since it’s an injectable product (allowing a fairly quick manufacturing process), it offers low manufacturing costs and high performances, while allowing complex designs,” details Eric. “The long fibers form, after molding, a rigid skeleton that gives the parts an unique set of properties: a high rigidity-resilience combination (usually both properties are inversely proportional) and outstanding fatigue resistance.”
Long-standing rigidity and resilience while weighing much less than metal parts: one perfect application for LFTs is ski binding systems. Strained at every curve the skier makes, they have to withstand considerable forces and resist extreme temperatures without losing any of their properties, making them a safety element, particularly for ski racing.
Solvay is a relatively new player on this market; the business already exists, clients and applications are there. “We’re going to push further thanks to our wide range of resins in order to make up a quite new and unique portfolio in the world of thermoplastics,” explains Eric. And sporting goods are a significant and therefore strategic market here, where new applications are still to be found, provided the right solutions are developed...
|The magic powder in your tires|
Oh, and while you’re driving up to the slopes, take a minute to thank your winter tires for their adherence. And guess what, Solvay is there too! The Group provides a specific grade of silica that, when added to the rubber, makes for safer driving on snow, ice and water. These high performance winter tires are used for competitions such as car races on ice, but they are available for normal cars too! “These are quite high tech products,” says Thomas Chaussée, Global Tire R&I Manager at Solvay Silica. “In fact, the grade of silica we provide is almost unique on the market, but it’s becoming more and more apparent for manufacturers that this is one of the best solutions there are.” There too, Solvay likes to be where the latest technologies can really make a difference.