How can engineering help athletes?

Jon Lawson

Materials science has long been associated with the world of sport, developing materials for clothing and equipment that are designed to give athletes that all important competitive edge. With the Olympics just weeks away, the latest innovations will soon be on the world stage, helping athletes to win medals and perform to their best. 

From the running blades used by Paralympians to new breathable fabrics that regulate body heat, engineered materials can help athletes to achieve their potential. For both clothing and equipment, being streamlined and light weight is key. However, equipment also requires strength, and finding solutions that are both light and strong is often the main challenge. 
For this reason, composite materials, such as carbon fibre, have become firm favourites of sports equipment innovators. Kevlar, a synthetic fibre used in bullet-proof vests, has also grown in popularity, and is increasingly used to make snowboards, kayaks and racquets. The structural soundness of kevlar means it is highly resistant to cracking and shattering, ensuring the sports equipment is both durable and light. 
Nanomaterials have also found use in the manufacture of golf and tennis equipment. These advanced materials provide benefits such as increased resilience and efficiency. For example, Wilson Sporting Goods, an American sports equipment manufacturer, has created tennis balls that use nanotechnology to hold their bounce for longer, with the inner layer of the ball covered with microscopic spheres of butyl rubber and clay particles. This construction helps the ball to maintain its shape by reducing air loss when the ball is hit. 
As well as using materials science to enhance tennis balls, the company has also used it to improve its racquets, holding a US patent (10.646.753 B2) for a racquet built with flexibility at its core. Using a fibre composite material that includes a plurality of ply arrangements, the racquet is able to flex in multiple directions, improving its overall performance and durability. 
Innovations that make use of fibre composite materials often focus on how the equipment can be manufactured more easily. For example, bicycle components engineer, Hope, has completely redesigned the track bike. As well as changing the structure to improve its aerodynamic properties, the wheels have been created in one piece. Each disc wheel is formed from a single piece of carbon fibre, rather than multiple pieces bonded together, improving the speed and ease of manufacture. Reducing the bonding agent also means the weight of the bicycle is reduced further. 
When it comes to clothing innovations, the University of Birmingham has recently used nanotechnology to create a highly-effective shock absorption material, which could be used in helmets, knee pads and shoe insoles to offer improved protection to athletes. An aqueous solution is inserted into a hydrophobic cage-like molecular structure, providing impressive energy absorption as well as flexibility and reusability. 
Sportsmen and women are constantly striving to improve on their performances and materials science innovators are aiming to support them in doing so. In this fast-moving space however, it is important to secure patent protection for any innovations at an early stage. The 20-year period of exclusivity this brings will allow them a window of opportunity to secure a strong position in the marketplace.  
High-profile sporting events, such as the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, provide an opportunity to showcase the best that materials science has to offer, and innovative manufacturers can expect to benefit from a wave of consumer spending.  It is important to secure patent protection before these major events get underway however. Failing to do so could mean their innovations are copied by agile competitors and any commercial rewards they had hoped to secure could be short-lived. 

• The authors, Gemma McGeough and Mark Sugden are both senior associate patent attorneys in the Advanced Engineering Group at European intellectual property firm Withers & Rogers. 

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