Thursday, August 2, 2012

Olympic material

Olympic performances are becoming ever more glorious thanks to advanced materials used in the latest vaulting poles, rowing shells and bathing suits, according to a recent Scientific American podcast covering a Nature Materials series. One more reason for me to watch the games for 30 hours this weekend.

We asked Uday Vaidya, Ph.D., professor in the UAB Department of Materials Science and Engineering about the affect of space-age materials on sports and lives beyond the Olympics.

In London, advanced materials are on display in events from archery and tennis to swimming, rowing and cycling. All feature tools, vehicles or clothing made of materials that offer improved strength, stiffness, impact-resistance and, in the case of swimwear, nanomaterial-enabled water resistance.

In tennis, carbon fiber and titanium rackets offer more flexibility and resilience, with materials recipes customized to accommodate each player’s swing, says Vaidya. Safety helmets and vests used by boxers and equestrians are lighter but offer greater protection thanks to high-tech foams and fabrics woven into new architectures. Take a look at this NBC video on the design of safety helmets and this Washington Post piece on how swimsuit tech has changed the pace at which world records are set. 

Beyond the Olympics, materials are poised to change daily life, says Vaidya. New car panels promise better protection than traditional carbon steel, but weigh a third as much. The recently launched Boeing Dreamliner is made of carbon fibers that reduce the aircraft’s fuel consumption while making possible more comfortable seating and bigger windows.

Buildings and bridges soon will be built of advanced concrete with embedded sensors that can detect impending structural failure or earthquakes and “self-heal” to extend the structure’s lifespan. UAB-related materials projects include components for next-generation tourniquets and body armor that promise to save soldiers’ lives and noise-dampening panels for high-school band-practice rooms and, someday, entire city blocks. We also can look forward to smart homes with roofs that better harness energy and cars that come with autopilot.

On the medical front, materials engineers are designing artificial joints that last decades and smart stents that more efficiently keep open once-clogged arteries. Scaffolds hold surgical repairs in place and then dissolve, while artificial cartilage soon will speed recovery from injury. More kinds of artificial organs are on the way as well.

Those with a serious interest in materials engineering should look up the Materials Research Society, The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society and Tghe Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineerin, Vaidya says. He also recommends the magazines Advanced Materials and Processes, Composites Technology and Composites Manufacturing

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