Plastics: Performance material in sports and aviation

This article is intended to support the chat hosted by Thomas Schmidt, a former Olympic champion in slalom canoeing. The article consists of basic information about plastics as performance materials in sports and aviation.

Designers and engineers are constantly searching for ways to use fewer resources to deliver better performance. This requires developing new materials and new ways of combining materials in order to achieve better results. This has a variety of benefits across many different applications. In this chat we look at two: aviation and sports. In aviation, lighter materials are enabling e.g. aeroplanes to use less fuel and in sports, among a number of benefits, high performance materials are enabling new world records to be set.

Sports and aviation, the subject of this chat, are two sectors which might seem very different, but they have at least one common denominator: in both field plastics are starting to make impossible things possible!

“Sports” is a very wide term. Perhaps you do not need plastics in sumo wrestling, but try to think of any other sport where you don’t need them! You need plastic components in your shoes for running, for your clothes, for your sails, for your swimming gear. The list is long and could go on and on.

Thomas Schmidt, the host of this chat, is a former Olympic champion in slalom canoeing. This is a sport where high performance materials are essential. You use plastic components in the actual canoe as well as in other gear such as the paddle and the helmet. Composite materials (i.e. substances that combine together two or more materials) are widely used. The weight of finished products that use this composite material can be 40% less than products made purely of metal.

Equipment made of plastics is used in nearly every type of ballgame these days. Think about football: the "leather ball" has not been made of leather for decades. A completely new concept has arisen for the production of footballs, known as "thermal bonding". This ensures consistent quality and performance, ball after ball. It is not only the ball that matters in football, think of the cones for the training sessions, the goal net or the goalkeeper’s shin pads.

Water sports and plastics have been partners for a long time. Sailing boats, sails and rigging, for instance, are made of polyester, polyamide or aramid (different types of plastics).

All these examples of plastics and sports are also connected with the field of aviation, another field in which plastics have made new highly-efficient equipment possible. In aviation, composite materials are being widely developed and used. Combining materials can generate superior results by exploiting the best characteristics of each material; for example, metal and plastic are often combined to give increased sturdiness and strength at a very light weight.

One excellent example of where plastics are making a difference is the Boeing Dreamliner, set to have its first flight at the end of December 2008. Both the Dreamliner and the recently launched Airbus A380 show marked improvements in both passenger comfort and environmental performance, enabled by the use of high performance plastics. Roughly half of the Dreamliner and 25% of the A380 consist of glass-, carbon- or quartz-reinforced resins, so-called plastics composites.

Advanced composite components in planes make for a significant improvement in the ecological impact of flying. The Dreamliner, for example, will be 20% lighter than a comparable plane of this size, reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. And the A380, says Airbus, will use less than 3 litres fuel per passenger per 100 km.

But both these new aircraft are not just more economical, they also set new standards in terms of flying experience and passenger comfort. Composite materials can withstand higher pressure and thus permit increased air pressure in the cabin. This should diminish fatigue from flying and help to alleviate jet lag problems as well as about 50 further symptoms, according to Boeing.

There are even composite airplanes under development that can fly on solar power. Bertrand Piccard leads a project named “solar impulse” which aims to design and fly an airplane propelled uniquely by solar energy, right round the world without fuel or pollution. The construction of the aircraft calls on the most advanced technologies and stimulates research in the field of composite structures and the means of producing and storing energy. The results of this research will be possible to use in numerous other applications useful to society.

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