Every two years, the Olympic Games remind us that the human body can achieve remarkable feats of strength, dexterity, agility, and intelligence. As a materials science nerd, though, my eyes tend to gravitate to the athletes’ sports equipment. Of course, the athletes are enthralling; many train their entire lives to win a medal, pushing the limits of mind and body. But it’s undeniable that the Olympics today—and all organized sports—would look vastly different without decades of materials science advances. Advanced materials go beyond making an athlete better or faster. They literally change the game in key ways:
Advanced materials increase game or athletic performance. Let’s take skiing for example. Skiers once attached heavy wood laminates to their feet, sending uncomfortable vibrations up their legs. Eventually, ski manufacturers infused carbon fiber molds with rigid polymer resins to create skis that are light, flexible, and aerodynamic. They can even significantly dampen vibrations from repetitive moguls, or help skiers land a large jump with ease. During the Summer Olympic Games, it’s the carbon fiber composite bicycles used in cycling events that make a difference. A typical bike weight is 30 to 40 pounds, but high-tech composite bikes weigh as little as 15 pounds with plenty of structural integrity, so that athletes go faster and further than ever before.
Advanced materials can help reduce injury or increase player safety. No material can completely secure an athlete’s safety, but advanced materials make a difference. As medical research continues to uncover the detrimental long-term effects of concussions from high-intensity sports like American football, many are scrambling for solutions. While new game regulations are one avenue to reduce injuries, researchers now seek to design helmets that significantly reduce the physical impact on those precious noggins. In fact, the NFL has offered a substantial incentive to any company that manufactures a safer helmet. Prior to this incentive, a professor at UCLA had already been developing a shock-absorbing polymer designed to reduce the impact of helmet-to-helmet contact. Such materials science innovations can increase the safety of many other high-impact sports.
Advanced materials can give some the ability to participate. Four working limbs can be a prerequisite to many sports, but some folks don’t have that privilege. Materials science seeks to change that, developing prosthetic limbs or peripheral devices to widen the range of sports in which individuals with disabilities can compete. Advanced polymers and composite materials have been applied to bio-inspired structures to yield high-performance prosthetic devices. Wheelchairs with composite frames and deep wheel camber angles enable para-athletes to play basketball, tennis, and race in marathons. Swiss scientists have been developing the first sensory-enhanced artificial limb that feels closest to a real hand, and I am excited to see how these advanced materials systems will one day extend into sports applications for limbless individuals.
These examples only scratch the surface of the profound role materials science plays in sports. Certainly much of the credit for making sports exciting goes to athletes. The level of passion and conviction that it takes for humans to perform extraordinary acts never ceases to amaze me. Yet the integration of materials science continues to push the boundaries of possibility, enhancing our experiences as both athletes and spectators.