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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sports Engineering

This month's issue of Professional Engineer has a focus on sports engineering. Dr. Peter Styring, a professor at the University of Sheffield invented a self-waxing system for skis, translating to an appreciable increase in speed.

Smooth operator

A device that continually waxes skis even while they are in use may prove a winner at the Winter Olympics, Heath Reidy investigates.

A competitor’s need for speed is the driving force in many outdoor sports. Whether it’s a faster engine at the Silverstone racetrack or a swifter oar in the Thames Boat Race, engineers can help sharpen that competitive edge and keep records tumbling.

When it comes to skiing, the opportunities for engineers to increase speed are limited. It is just gravity, some funky footwork and a tub of pricey wax that help add a few more knots to a skier’s slalom. But now a device has been developed that may take the alpine runs of the Winter Olympics to new heights.

Developed by Dr Peter Styring, a professor at the University of Sheffield, Wildfire is a self-waxing system that can increase a skier’s speed. With its top secret eutectic wax mixture, tests have shown that Wildfire can increase a skier’s speed by as much as two per cent from an average of 77mph. That can add as much as a metre of height to a jump.

The device has also given skiers a speedier performance off the ski slopes, with a 9% increase on artificial indoor slopes, and a 50% rise on dry ski slopes from an average speed of 20mph.

“It gives skiers a more competitive edge,” says Styring. “It’s good for amateurs and gives you more airtime. When I used it, I skied faster down the dry ski slope than I had in years.”

As an avid skier and ski coach himself, Styring thought up the idea of Wildfire while on the slopes. “I saw all these kids standing there with their various portions of Fairy Liquid and vegetable oil and, 10 minutes later, it would have come off. Then I had this idea of a continuous waxing system.”

With Wildfire, the skier doesn’t have to constantly apply wax after each ski run as the previous layer rubs off. Instead, the device can store 60ml of wax for hours and gradually spurt it on to the ski base, all while the skier is in action.

The Wildfire, above, conforms to governing body regulations.

The device is a hollow polypropylene container fitted into the middle section of the ski. Wax is poured into the container through a small capped hole in the top and stored before being sporadically released through a hole in the ski base.

When the skier steps on to the ski the pressure on the device flexes the container. This causes the wax to move to the front and into the tube where it is released. An air intake valve at the top of the device allows air to keep the wax moving through the tube. This means the wax can be constantly replaced by another layer as it is used up, removing any dirt that adheres to it which can slow down the skier.

Styring says: “If you have got this continuous flow system, then you are continuously moving that wax layer so any dirt that attaches to the ski is moved off so it doesn’t accumulate.”

Styring is taking Wildfire to trials in December to see if it can be used as an official skiing device at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. In the hope that it can be used in global ski competitions, it conforms to International Skiing Federation (FIS) rules.

Styring has experimented with various designs for Wildfire, including fitting plastic cups of wax to the front of the skis. He eventually decided to bolt the device into the middle section of the ski and remove a part called the rise plate.

The rise plate, beneath the ski binding, is needed only to add height to the skier and give him or her more leverage. The Wildfire has been built to the same dimensions, which conforms to FIS regulations that the height between the base of the ski and the sole of the boot must not exceed 55mm.

“One of the things we made sure was that it behaved as a normal ski so you don’t have to readjust your technique,” explains Styring.

Since being tested by ski professionals in the Alps and other European ski resorts this year, Wildfire has created a lot of interest from ski manufacturers around the world.

The final design will be chosen by the company that buys it, and may include a switch that opens and closes a valve to control the wax flow for different types of skiing.

Styring has also developed a similar device that can be used on snowboards. This consists of two interconnected reservoirs, which store the wax, and four holes in the board base that release it, allowing the user to move quickly in different directions.

“Because snowboards can move forwards, backwards and sideways, the delivery system has been re-engineered so it will work three-dimensionally.”
But Styring’s real hope is that Wildfire will be used at Vancouver. “We want it to outperform their best possible wax,” he says. “It’s my last chance to get an Olympic medal, even if I’m not on my skis.”

(Reidy, Heath. "Smooth operator." Professional Engineer 20.15 (2007): 37 - 8.)

At the moment, Wildfire's potential is useless to me — anything harder than a blue slope and I pretty much tumble down the mountain rather than ski it. I guess by the time I master black diamond slopes, Professor Styring's invention will be on the open market.  :-P


Blogger Cloxxki said...

So, how much extra (likely less than environmentally friendly) wax is being left on the snow?

I came up with this same "invention" a good year ago, and may even have discussed it on the internet in self-ridicule. I knew it could be done, and work as performance enhancer, and don't doubt Wildfire's execution will be most effective. One reason to not persue it was unfair competition combined with added cost for racers, AND the already disregarded environment in the sport of skiing. Especially Alpine.

How about a strong fridge unit on your skis to keep temperature right on the optimum for gliding, wax retention and dirt accumulation?

September 16, 2007 5:36 PM  

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