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Volume 86 Issue 33 | p. 10 | News of The Week
Issue Date: August 18, 2008

Faster, Higher, Stronger

Chemical company know-how enables new equipment and buildings
Department: Business
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A Nike running shoe worn by Olympian Asafa Powell contains Kuraray fibers.
Credit: Nike
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A Nike running shoe worn by Olympian Asafa Powell contains Kuraray fibers.
Credit: Nike

FROM A RECORD-ENABLING swimsuit to an eye-catching swimming stadium, athletic accoutrements on display at the Beijing Olympics owe much of their pizzazz to polymers, fibers, and other materials provided by the chemical industry.

Fans watching Michael Phelps and other U.S. swimmers win an ever-increasing number of gold medals can't help but notice their striking full-body LZR Racer suits. They aren't just for looks. Creator Speedo says swimmers wearing them increase their efficiency by up to 5% thanks to low in-water drag.

The suits' special nylon/spandex fabric is the product of a four-year collaboration between Speedo and Mectex, an Italian textile manufacturer. Mectex used a cold plasma treatment it calls Plasmaterial to cut the fabric's water absorption. Speedo then ultrasonically "welds" polyurethane panels strategically onto the fabric to further trim resistance. According to Speedo, the combination reduces drag by 38% compared with conventional nylon/spandex suits.

The swimming competitions take place in an equally striking venue: Beijing's National Aquatics Center, better known as the Water Cube. The center's honeycomb façade looks a bit like giant blue Bubble Wrap. The inflated cushions are made by Germany's Vector Foiltec out of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene film supplied by Japanese glass and chemical maker Asahi Glass. According to Vector, the polymer was originally developed by DuPont and NASA, which was looking for a stable material that would not break down under the action of cosmic radiation.

This week, the Olympic focus will be on track-and-field sports, where just a few ounces of extra weight can mean the difference between winning and losing. Track stars such as Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang and Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell will be wearing new ultralight Nike shoes based on a support system the company calls Flywire.

Dutch sailors use boats made with DSM composites.
Credit: DSM
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Dutch sailors use boats made with DSM composites.
Credit: DSM

At the heart of this technology are thin liquid-crystal polymer fibers manufactured by Japanese chemical company Kuraray. Nike says it constructed Powell's track spikes with 65 liquid-crystal "synthetic tendons" that act like suspension-bridge cables to resist stretching and maintain lateral stiffness without adding weight.

Meanwhile, Dutch chemical maker DSM is backing a number of its home country athletes, including those in the lower profile sport of 470-class sailing. DSM says the Dutch team's boats were built with composite laminates it developed with knowledge gained in creating long, strong blades for wind turbines. All Dutch boats will be equipped with rigging made out of Dyneema, DSM's ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene fiber.

DuPont fibers and polymers will also appear at the Beijing Olympics in the form of products such as Specialized's S-Works, a Kevlar-containing bike helmet touted as the world's lightest. Brian Foy, product design and development manager for DuPont Advanced Fiber Systems, acknowledges that sports equipment is a modest market for DuPont, but he likes the way it reveals completely new applications for the company's products.

"For the most part, there are no barriers to entering the sporting goods market," Foy says, "so if you are there, it's because you are doing something better than can be done with any other material."

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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