How elite sports are benefitting from nanotechnology

If you are a sports fan, the chances are that summer brings with it a cornucopia of sporting treats. The summer of 2019 has brought with it particularly tasty treats. From the Women’s Football World Cup to the Cricket World Cup, the NBA finals, the Tour de France, the Open golf Championship, the Netball World Cup, Wimbledon, the Ashes, the African Cup of Nations – the list goes on, and there’s not an Olympics in sight.

Global viewing figures are at an all time high, and access to watch these sporting greats has never been more widespread – in the main as the result of huge investment. Professional sport has become big business over the last couple of decades and is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Which is all well and good, but along with money comes expectation, and the stakes are at astronomical levels, particularly in the most popular sports (such as Formula One, football, NFL, MLB, NBA, cycling. Cycling? The Tour de France is the 4th most watched global sporting event every year).

As a result winning has taken on a whole different level, as investors look to gain advantages over their rivals and keep the money rolling in. But it’s not just money that can deliver that winning feeling. Increasingly technology is playing a key part in making the difference. In motorsport and cycling that’s always been the case (although bikes in this year’s Grand Tours bear little resemblance to those of even 10 years ago), but advances in areas such as sportswear, technical equipment and footwear have made huge differences in performance.

New materials have emerged over the last two decades that have revolutionised the sports world. From the ubiquitous (Lycra, or if you prefer Elastine) to the extremely technical (Neoprene), there are now a wide spectrum of materials available to help shave off that elusive tenth of a second. And it’s not just the materials that have changed. Fabrics such as polyester have certain properties that are useful in sports, such as water and wind resistance; but when coated with polyurethane, can become completely waterproof.

Coating technology is playing an ever increasing role in improving performance, whether on tennis racket strings, footballs or cricket balls. And often at the heart of these coatings you will find nanotechnology. Nanoparticles have been used in clothing for some time but their presence is increasing. There are several wide-ranging examples of this.

Silver nanoparticles are remarkably efficient at killing microbes and fungi  – crucial if you’re wearing the article over a long period of time (Marathon de Sables anyone)? Titanium and Zinc Oxides scatter UV rays, providing sun protection during long, hot summer days on Centre Court, the Maracana stadium or Lords.

Zinc and Titanium have another benefit – they reduce static on materials such as nylon and polyester, creating more comfortable garments for sport and keeping one’s hair in place to boot.

These particles can also function as data collection points, housing data sensors that collect information in real time. One application of this approach is an in-built ECG to measure heart activity. This means the wearing of ‘smart shirts’ is now widespread, a hugely useful tool during training periods. In the case of duration sports like a triathlon they can be used during the event.

Silica – the world in which Sharc Matter resides – is particularly good at water and stain repellency. We see its hydrophobicity in action through the production of Solar Sharc, a Sharc Matter-based coating used in the BIPV and solar farm industries. Not only that, but silica nanoparticles have a wide range of properties that could, and in some cases already do, improve a multitude of sporting performances. A hydrophobic rowing oar would in theory cut through water far more efficiently; swimming hats, costumes and even goggles could make the tiniest – and crucial – difference between gold and silver. What’s more, water usually equals weight, and the heavier an object is the less efficient it is at moving through the air – so the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Chris Froome benefit from this very technology.

So the next time you are marvelling at the achievements of our sporting heroes, remember – it’s the little(est) things that often make the difference.