The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.
Without the legions of scientists and engineers who develop new athletic gear, the quadrennial crop of Olympic athletes might not turn in breathtaking, record-setting
performances. New gear also addresses safety and comfort requirements, aiming to protect athletes from injuries and Rio’s less-than-hygienic watery venues. This year’s class of elite athletes benefits from improved equipment and training methods, as I described in my earlier post. Today I’m reporting on some of the latest advances in athletic attire. In case you’re wondering, everything described here has passed the IOC’s muster – not always the easiest feat to accomplish.
Fitting like a second skin
A former Olympic rower, John Strotbeck, described his 1984-era competition shorts as “[made of] cotton and nylon and about as formfitting as a trash bag.” In most sports, competition garb in 2016 is more likely to be a second skin. Strotbeck now manufactures custom seamless knitted outfits for the US rowers that incorporate water repellency and anti-microbial properties, as well as extreme comfort and lack of seams to chafe. A faculty member at Philadelphia University (formerly the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science) developed the technology that produces these garments. The anti-microbial feature should help protect rowers from the questionable quality of the Rio waters.
Swimwear, cyclists’ unitards, and gymnastics leotards aren’t seamless, but, like the rowers’ garb, are sized individually for each athlete. Advances in 3D imaging make it easier for pattern-cutters to achieve a flawless fit. Within the same sport, different athletes have different builds. Accommodating each athlete’s body type and preferences while keeping the design consistent across wearers is easier using custom-fit software. This also reduces the number of prototypes fitters have to produce to arrive at a finished garment.
3D printers for track and field
Both Nike and New Balance have put 3D printing technology to use in designs for track and field athletes. New Balance customized a track shoe fit for US sprinter Trayvon Bromell, using iterative versions to achieve the fit and performance the athlete required. This application of 3D printing sounds pretty ho-hum compared to Nike’s AeroBlades technology. Nike manufactures AeroBlades from adhesive tape with silicon-based spikes that runners will wear on various parts of their bodies to help cut wind resistance. The 3D printer builds the spikes in different shapes and densities depending on the body location where a specific tape gets stuck (see pictures here). Nike used wind tunnels for extensive prototype testing. Nike introduced this technology for sprinters in the 2012 London games. This year AeroBlades makes its debut in longer races.
Keeping their cool
Given the rigors of Rio’s sultry climate, protecting athletes from heat buildup is a critical safety factor. The latest wicking fabric from Nike, used in basketball, track and field, and soccer, are much more breathable than prior editions. UnderArmor is using technology borrowed from the space program to fashion uniforms for the Canadian rugby and Swiss beach volleyball teams. The skin-facing side of the fabric has crystal-pattern sheets to help absorb body heat.
Another Nike advance is a breathable, adhesive race bib. Ever since athletes started wearing numbers in competitions, they’ve had to pin on their numbers. This is not an optimal aerodynamic situation. As one athlete described it, “We spent all this time developing aerodynamic elements to a uniform, and then we would pin our bibs on with safety pins that were invented in 1849."
Athletes depend on footwear for safety and for improved performance. One problem with which most of us can identify is the discomfort of blisters. For an Olympian, a blister is more than an annoyance, though. Brooks manufactures running shoes with fabric that eliminates seams. The shoes also have rubber rings on the soles, which provide traction and also help return energy to the runner.
A particularly fascinating Nike innovation is the HyperAdapt shoe, which is self-lacing and self-fitting. This shoe has a sensor in the heel that, when it detects that the athlete has donned the shoe, triggers the shoelaces to tighten. A system of cables driven by a tiny motor makes this happen. I wonder if the advantage of a custom fit justifies the weight of the motor and cables?
And then there’s the bling
Much has been made of the increased number of crystals on women’s gymnastics competition costumes. (See this slide show in the New York Times for an enlightening history of gymnastic
costumes .) In 2012, the US gold-medal winner Gabby Douglas wore 1,188 Swarovski crystals; this year, some of the US team’s competition leotards have nearly 5,000. The designers say that the weight of these crystals doesn’t weigh down the competitors … but just in case, Swarovski is developing a new crystal that’s 50 percent lighter than the current product. Just in case the weight of crystals does make a difference on the balance beam.
First, a disclaimer: I’m not a bicycle expert. On the far-too-rare occasions when I
saddle up, I wipe the cobwebs off my 20-plus-year-old hybrid and hope the tires aren’t flat. Watching the Olympic cycling road races over the weekend made my
quads hurt. That said, some of the technological innovations for world-class bicycle racing intrigued me enough to do a bit of investigation. While I was doing some research, I uncovered a completely unexpected innovation. Read on.
Olympic Torch Paint
During the women’s road race on Sunday, one of the NBC commentators mentioned that the frame of one of the competitor’s cycles reacts to temperature by changing colors. Specialized is rolling out its Torch-painted frames and helmets. The paint starts out red and transitions to yellow as the ambient temperature rises to 71 degrees Fahrenheit. Why 71 degrees? That’s Rio de Janeiro’s August mean temperature. This means that bike frames and helmets with Torch paint won’t be red or orange for long; the average low is only 66 degrees F. Check out the video here to watch the chameleon-like transformation.
Switching Sides in the Velodrome
Bicycle drivetrains are always on the right-hand side … except for a new model from Felt Bicycles. Felt’s new bike, the TA FRD designed for team pursuit races, has its drivetrain on the left. Why the switch? According to the manufacturer, “Over a 4km team pursuit track race, riders will encounter 64 left turns on the oval velodrome, and the right side of their bikes will be traveling ever-so-slightly farther and slightly faster than the left side of their bikes.” A small tweak, but in a sport where split seconds can separate winners and losers, small tweaks can pay off.
In addition to the drivetrain switch, this bike is asymmetrical and has tubes designed to yield maximum speed. The company assigned two full-time engineers to the project and started work in late 2012. The design reflects a breakthrough in the understanding of the way riders in a velodrome experience wind resistance. With their new understanding that wind hits riders at an angle and not head-on, designers devised this unconventional machine.
Will it work? Check it out for yourself. The US women’s pursuit team will ride their Felt model TA FRDs in qualifying rounds on August 11 and the finals on August 13.
Big Blue’s Big Data
This is the new technology that I didn’t expect to find. The USA Cycling Women’s Team Pursuit has another technological edge – one based on advanced data analytics
powered by IBM Analytics and related hardware and software. Connected devices – the Internet of Things (IoT) for elite cycling – collect data from each cycle’s power meter and each rider’s heart rate monitor and muscle oxygen sensors. The data travel via cell phones to IBM’s data cloud, to the analysis platform, IBM’s Apache Spark.
The big advantage this automated system has over previous data collection and analysis methods is that coaches get immediate feedback, so they can in turn provide riders with immediate feedback. Information for each cyclist is available via a data dashboard immediately after a training session or a race. These data help coaches and riders fine-tune their approach to a race. Since team pursuit riders expend differing amounts of energy based on their position in the foursome, understanding the rate of energy use can help inform the timing of lead shifts. The oxygenation data reveal when an athlete is sufficiently recovered to start another training ride.
All of This Just for Sport?
As with the US space program, breakthroughs in technology in competitive cycling can have a trickledown effect for leisure riders. For example, IBM is counting on insights gained from applying IoT and data analytics to power more business- and industry-related product offerings. Even though most casual riders will never own a $12,000 carbon-fiber bike, we can still benefit from design changes and even a bit of bling from color-changing paint.
Origin of life – Electricity is able to rearrange simple gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor and water into more intricate forms. A series of experiments shows that organics produced by lightning on our new planet most likely included amino acids and other fundamental components of living things and therefor served as the pool of ingredients from which life came.
Early Microbes – All living things need nitrogen gas to make essential molecules like proteins and DNA. Nitrogen is extremely stable and lightening can break the bonded atoms and weld them onto nearby oxygen atoms. These oxides were usable by early microbes ensuring they had a renewable supply of nitrogen with which to continue reproducing. As microbes spread across the planet and increased in number, supplies of lightening-derived nitrogen oxides declined. This spurred the evolution of microbes to develop an internal way to convert nitrogen gas to workable ammonia.
Forest Life – As soon as trees appeared, lightning began killing them. They are the principal natural means by which wildfires are ignited. And wildfires are important for forests. They provide homes and food for many animals and fungi. Other organisms reproduce as a direct results of burnt soil and charred wood. Production of fire-lined fungi is triggered when trees are damaged by fire and the dead leaves covering the forest floor, from which the mushrooms sprout, are burned away. Heat and smoke are also responsible for bringing about the germination of plant seeds which are impermeable to water until exposed to high heat.
Electrical currents have been linked to the creation and evolution of life on Earth. But it can also have devastating consequences – killing many of the quarter of a million people hit by lightning a year.
So maybe enjoy the thunderstorms from the safety of your front porch.
Last week I had my first MRI as a result of some recent migraine-like headaches. It was pretty much all I’d anticipated: a Friday the 13th-style mask over my face, an uncomfortable 20 minutes in the tube, and an array of sounds that replicated—to quote my imaging tech—a bad drum solo. MRI has undergone some positive changes in its recent history, including the development of open and wide-bore scanners, but one aspect that hasn’t changed since its invention in 1971 is the use of liquid helium to cryogenically cool each scanner’s superconducting electromagnet.
Helium is the second-most abundant element in the observable universe, accounting for 24% of all baryonic matter, but usable terrestrial helium is much rarer. Global helium reserves have been in decline for years, and doctors and scientists have been criticizing the sale of helium balloons as wasting the gas critical to medical and scientific applications. Nobel laureate Robert Richardson considers the gas so precious that in 2012 he suggested raising the price of a child’s helium balloon to around $100 to reflect to true cost of helium.
Some of this panic was laid to rest last week, when a team from the UK and Norway announced the discovery of a massive natural store of helium in Tanzania’s Rift valley. They estimate that the area contains around 54 billion cubic feet of the gas, enough to cool 1.2 million MRI scanners. Natural helium supplies are typically uncovered by mistake during oil and gas exploration. But the UK scientists used expertise from Helium One, a Norwegian helium exploration company, to find that the Rift valley’s volcanic activity released helium from eons-old rocks buried deep underground. The released gas then became trapped in fields closer to the surface.
Helium has had some interesting supply chain issues in the US. The country began hoarding its supply—which accounts for about 70% of the world’s helium—during the airship craze of the early 1900s, establishing the National Helium Reserve in 1925 and banning exportation in 1927. The Reserve expanded throughout the Space Race and Cold War eras but poor financial management caused it to become economically insoluble. The 1996 Helium Privatization Act forced the Reserve to sell itself off at a (very low) formula-driven price beginning in 2005. But helium’s non-renewable nature resulted in shortfalls that have caused the gas’s private market price to rise 500% since 2000 or so. The 2013 Helium Stewardship Act mandated that the Reserve stick around until 2021, but many believe the liquidation of the reserve’s gas at ridiculously low prices prior to that legislation doomed US supply.
But the “we’re running out of a limited resource and we’re all going to die” argument is the same one commonly heard about fossil fuels, and in the same vein it has its detractors. They argue that mineral reserves are identified and prepared for use for the next several decades. So instead of panicking about limited supply, concerned individuals should remember that they’ve got the next several decades to identify and mine more supplies for the years following the exhaustion of the current reserve. Some also argue that helium is renewable, as it’s formed, albeit slowly, by the radioactive decay of plentiful uranium. One writer compared it to worrying about starving to death after you’ve eaten all the food in your refrigerator: instead of letting your fridge and stomach become empty, you just go out and find more before it reaches that point.
We can only hope that the Tanzania store drives He’s price down, or at least stops it from shooting up. In addition to cryogenic cooling of MRI scanners and NMR spectrometers, helium has important uses in controlled atmospheres, as a shielding gas in arc welding, and for industrial leak detection. The high cost of cryogenic cooling has made numerous exciting developments, such as superconducting power cables, unfeasible—perhaps this is a step in the right direction? Earlier this year we learned that China is looking to mine helium-3, a rarity on Earth, from the Moon’s crust to combat the supply problem. It doesn’t seem likely the Rift valley discovery will discourage that mission.
Next month marks 100 years since the Jersey Shore shark attacks. A rogue shark (or multiple sharks, depending on which scientist you ask) killed four people and injured one during a two week span in early July 1916, at a time when a brutal heat wave and polio epidemic were driving thousands to resorts on the Atlantic coast. The attacks not only spurred panic and shark eradications on a national scale, they also immediately redefined the shark’s image from one of a timid sea creature to “the incarnation of ferocity.” Shark fever swept the nation, and soon newspaper cartoonists were using sharks to lampoon topics as diverse as German U-boats and prudish Victorian bathing suits.
Today, of course, ichthyologists know the truth about sharks and their behavior: they have lots of sharp teeth and occasionally attack without provocation. The popularity of films like Jaws and the annual sharkathon Shark Week, which kicks off June 25th this year, confirms that the mystique is still in vogue a century after the New Jersey incidents. While fatal shark attacks draw heavy media attention, they’re quite rare, with less than 100 total attacks reported each year. Still, those with a stake in beaches and resorts use a variety of technologies to prevent attacks.
A simple strategy for preventing attacks is to detect a shark’s presence and warn beachgoers to get the heck out of the water. In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where a burgeoning seal population is drawing record numbers of great whites closer to shore, municipalities are posting traditional signage as well as large, dramatic billboards showing scary-looking sharks. For people whose heads are permanently looking down at their phones even at the beach, local group Atlantic Great White Conservancy is launching an app to allow visitors to track tagged great whites or quickly report seeing untagged ones. This year Cape Cod and other locales on the Eastern Seaboard may begin using drones to monitor shark populations close to shore. California and Australia already engage in drone monitoring, but the murky East Coast waters make visual sightings a challenge.
The other angle is to repel sharks from heavily populated beaches altogether. Traditionally, drum lines and shark nets were used for this purpose, but these methods endanger other non-harmful species, including non-aggressive sharks. South Africa’s KwaZulu Sharks Board is currently commercializing a shark-deterrent cable they tested in 2014. The cable features vertical “risers” that emit a low-frequency signal designed to confuse the shark’s sensory system. A shark’s nose contains an electroreceptive organ called the ampullae of Lorenzini that detects the potential difference between the voltage at the base of the electroreceptor and the voltage at the shark’s skin. The ampullae allow the shark to detect a far-off living creature’s heartbeat through the water, assisting with hunting and tracking. If successful the cable would be a huge improvement over shark nets: sharks have the greatest electrical sensitivity of any known animal, so the small electric fields won’t bother any other sea life or nearby humans. According to the Shark Board, the cable’s current is so small that a person accidentally contacting the cable would feel little more than a tingle.
Shark attacks are rare, but as evidenced by the recent Orlando alligator incident, most vacationers aren’t attuned to keeping their eyes peeled for local wildlife hazards. Development of sharkproof tech seems to benefit all involved, from the beachside communities who lose business at the first sign of a fin to the tourists who depend of them to stay safe.