Ever picked up an old wooden tennis racquet or leather football and noticed how heavy they are, or how rough the material is? And then wondered how athletes weren’t constantly injured as they used them? Sporting equipment has changed dramatically in terms of the technology used to make them – golf clubs and racing bikes are lighter, tennis balls and footballs last longer, and swimmers and skaters can go faster thanks to the materials their gear is made from.
Nanotechnology is a branch of science dealing with the very small, smaller than the width of a human hair. But how can the very small be applied to the massive world of sports and can it really make the difference between winning and losing?
Small changes can make a big difference in the sporting arena and many types of sporting equipment now incorporate some kind of nanotechnology, from baseball bats to hockey sticks and from racing boats to archery arrows. Nanomaterials used include carbon nanotubes (CNTs), silica nanoparticles (SNPs), nanoclays and fullerenes – each material can confer an added advantage, such as high strength or stiffness, durability, reduced weight or friction, or wear resistance.
CNTs are the most prevalent nanomaterial used in sport equipment, accounting for 14% of the total annual consumption of CNTs. CNTs have a higher specific strength and stiffness – they are 100 times stronger but six times lighter than steel and as stiff as diamond making them ideal for low weight, high strength equipment such as ultra-lightweight bike frames and golf club shafts. Fullerenes are also used to lighten golf clubs by lowering the centre of gravity, thereby increasing the golfer’s power and accuracy. Graphene oxide and buckypaper – sheets of CNTs – have also benefitted water sports such as canoeing and boat racing. By incorporating nanotechnology into this equipment, racers can help increase the glide and strength of boats in the water while also reducing their weight.
Nanotechnology has also made an impact in football. Nanoclay linings are found in footballs and tennis balls where it acts as a barrier material upholding the pressure inside the ball allowing for longer game play. Shin pads are also made from nano-structured plastics; these are lightweight, but have an increased strength offering the player a thin shin pad that is still strong enough to offer superior protection.
Sport clothing, particularly football kits, have also benefitted from nanotechnology – those smelly socks are a breeding ground for fungi and bacteria. Silver has natural antibacterial and antifungal properties, so clothing is laced with fibres coated in silver nanoparticles. The nanoparticle meshes with the cotton, nylon or plastic fibre used to create the kit or other sports equipment. Its volume might be small, but the silver-coated fibres have a large surface area, meaning more interactions with the fungi and bacteria thus preventing their growth and multiplication – and the nasty smell on the sports socks! Adding other elements such as titanium could see oil repellent, waterproof, anti-odour and anti-stain materials making their way into sports clothing and equipment.
In the early 2000s, tennis ace Roger Federer started using nano-enhanced racquets, reportedly winning Wimbledon with one. Many tennis racquets, as well as containing CNTs, are also reinforced with SNPs. These make the racquets more stable and stronger and offer 22% more hitting power than non-nano racquets. SNPs can also be found in skis where they confer greater flexibility meaning the skier experiences slicker turns and rides.
In Formula 1 racing, where winning the race depends on the weight of the car, the tyres used and the weather conditions, nanocomposites can play an important role. They have been incorporated into the car body making it light weight and heard wearing – necessary when speeding round a tack at over 300 mph – and smart particles can fill the gaps between the paint molecules and the metal, helping the car to go up to 37 mph faster. But that’s not the only role nanotechnology has in F1 – nanofibers can be found in the brakes, and nanoparticles in lubricants to reduce wear and tear.
The big sports have already gone small and the use of nanotechnology in sport means that minute changes can make a big difference, especially competitively. Nano-enhanced equipment can help athletes perform better and is superior in strength, stiffness and durability compared to ‘normal’ sport equipment. It can be the difference between winning and losing, but nano-enhanced equipment isn’t available to all sportsmen and women. Nanotechnology is costly and complicated to work with meaning there isn’t a massive amount of nano-enhance equipment on the market – and what there is is expensive. As the big sports continue looking to make improvements, the cost of such technology and equipment will hopefully come down, making it available to all.
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