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Natalie Geisenberger of Germany competes in her third run during the women's luge final at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

When Olympic hopefuls are sliding down icy tracks at speeds of 93 mph, those watching at the event or on television aren’t usually thinking about how the track was constructed, or what will happen to it when the Games are over.

But from a financial, environmental and engineering perspective, those questions are important—perhaps even more important than who wins the gold medal.

That’s why Purdue University professor Jan-Anders Mansson has been working for three years to engineer the ice out of Olympic sports like bobsled, luge and skeleton. Instead of the traditional ice, Mansson has proposed using an ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene to construct the surface of the 1.2-mile tracks.

Utilizing the same type of metal used to construct traditional ice tracks, the chosen polyethylene, a rotary device and a thermal camera, Mansson was able to accurately test the real-world sport at a representative laboratory scale.

In each experiment, the polyethylene—the winner out of 8 materials Mansson and his team tested—performed well, mimicking the speed profile of an ice track, and showing no deterioration after 1,000 runs.

“These were critical tests for the verification of the material,” Mansson told Laboratory Equipment. “When a sled passes, yes, it makes a microgroove, but then the polymer heals very quickly. The low friction and low wear made the ultra-high molecular weight polyethelyne absolutely the best option.”

Another factor that makes plastic ice intriguing is cost. The track currently being used at this month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea reportedly cost about $115 million to build, and would require about $3 million annually to maintain—if the country chose to do so, which many do not.

In contrast, Mansson estimates his plastic track would cost $4 to $5 million, with no subsequent maintenance fees. By virtue of being plastic rather than frozen water, Masson’s track would eliminate the need for continuous cooling systems—claiming a 70 percent less impact on the environment than current tracks. And that environmental impact isn’t even taking into account all the raw materials used to construct the track in the first place.

According to Mansson, the plastic tracks could be separated into 22 modules, allowing portability—a perk the sports of bobsled, luge and skeleton have never known before. The portability would also enable the sports to be enjoyed in previously impossible locations, and at previously impossible times, such as the summer.  

Mansson, the director of Purdue’s Composites Manufacturing and Simulation Center (CMSC), is following up with this work and other sport challenges under a newly created Sport Consortium at the university. Working with Josh Dustin, a senior software applications engineer at CMSC, their research for the consortium is focused on taking sports beyond current boundaries through the implementation of cutting-edge material and manufacturing technologies.

For example, Dustin said the researchers are using fiber optic sensors and other piezoelectric-type sensors to get a look at an athlete’s strain during sport.

“We’re trying to understand, ‘what are these athletes feeling?,” Dustin told Laboratory Equipment. “We have to quantify what an athlete means when they say, ‘this hockey stick feels right.’ What are the metrics for that—is it material or build? How do we then take that information and build tailor-made equipment—either equipment that was designed specifically for an athlete, or a design that is robust enough that it can be easily adjusted.”

In addition, since Mansson’s lab is ultimately a composite-level lab, he and his team are looking into bicycles and bicycle wheels as related to performance. In time, other projects will include swimsuits, boots and shoes for sport.

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