Olympic secrets: Athletes bank on a lotus leaf

UBC researchers mimic mother nature to help Canada’s speed skaters go faster

The lotus leaf has a curious property, it doesn’t get wet. Water drops bead into perfect spheres, suspended by the air trapped in billions of nano-sized hairs. What’s that have to do with Olympic athletes? Well, water equals friction and friction is the enemy of speed, and speed is the stuff of Olympic glory. And so it was that a team of University of British Columbia engineers signed on to the Top Secret Program with a mandate both simple and complicated: make Canada’s athletes go faster.

If the “hydrophobia” (water repellency) of the lotus could be applied to sled runners, skates and ski bottoms, athletes could achieve higher speeds with less energy. “The idea was to mimic Mother Nature,” says engineering professor Savvas Hatzikiriakos. Researcher Anne Kietzig, who specializes in metals, began treating alloys with a laser from the university’s physics department. “You get different structures depending on the speed and the energy used by the laser,” she says. The result, viewed under an electron microscope, was a series of micro-level bumps covered in even smaller ripples measuring 500 billionths of a metre—a metallic lotus leaf.

The plan was to send this metal out to be coated with a water repellant surface, but a strange thing happened: the metal blades coated themselves. “What I initially did was just leave my samples lying around in the lab, not really paying attention to them for three weeks and all of a sudden they were hydrophobic, which we didn’t expect” says Kietzig. The treated blades bonded with carbon from the air, creating an ultra-water repellant surface, one that can reduce drag on ice by as much as 30-60 per cent.

So far, the governing bodies for bobsled, luge and skeleton won’t allow the treated runners to be used in competition. The break-through also came too late to be incorporated by Canada’s speed skaters at the 2010 Winter Games. But insiders say treated blades are likely to be used by Canadian skaters in the future. Meantime, Kietzig is happily slipping out of the lab in February to volunteer at the Olympic speed skating oval in Richmond.

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