Could the same armor that protects Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller also prevent serious injury among other Winter Olympics athletes?
- U.S. and Canadian ski teams wear suits with high-tech protective armor.
- The armor, which is based on sheer thickening fluid, is similar to the material used to protect soldiers.
- The material can be sculpted to protect any part of the body.
The Olympic alpine skiing course has seen its share of wipeouts the last couple of weeks. But crashing U.S. and Canadian skiers have been well protected by a neon orange goo.
Made by the British firm d3o and adapted by U.S. ski wear designer Spyder for the U.S. and Canadian ski teams, the material is soft and flexible under most conditions, but instantly hardens when a skier hits a gate.
"This padding is about spreading as much of the shock over as wide an area," said Phil Settig of Spyder. "These guys are traveling so fast that when they hit a gate it can snap back at up to 600 miles an hour. It's like getting caned."
The new pads help protect an athlete's body and their dreams of Olympic gold.
The active ingredient in d3o is a special class of liquid known as shear thickening fluid (STF). For years, STF has been part of soldiers' body armor.
At a recent demonstration for the British Ministry of Defense, d3o employees donned gloves filled with the most reactive d3o ingredient and whacked their hands with hammers. The company walked away with research money for three new projects: shock-absorbing helmets to stop concussions from bullets and explosions, knee and elbow pads, and shock absorbers for solid body armor.
Under normal conditions, STF flows like a liquid, conforming to its container and allowing objects gently placed on top of it to sink in. For an athlete, this means they can move and flex with ease.
Once the pressure is gone, the bonds break and the material becomes soft and flexible once more.
When an object, like a ski gate, slams into -- or sheers -- the fluid, the force of the impact compresses the molecules together and creates very strong, but very temporary bonds between the molecules, and the STF immediately hardens. The tightly-knit molecules spread the impact of the ski gate over the entire area of the pad, instead of the roughly one inch of the ski pole.
Previously, athletes wore hard plastic pads as protection. The pads do provide optimum protection, but impede a skier's movement. The plastic pads are also generally less aerodynamic and break the flow of air around the skier, increasing drag. When the outcome of a race is determined by tenths or even hundredths of a second, that drag can be the difference between winning and losing.
The d3o pads are worn under the athletes' speeds suits. By company wind tunnel estimates, the custom-designed, seamless suits and contoured padding make an athlete 15-18 percent faster. Over an entire ski run, Sypder estimates the suit can shave up to one second off their time.
The suits could be even faster, said Settig, but they need some texture to them to slow down a crashing skier.
The pads also have their limits. The military uses them to absorb a bullet's impact, but not to stop bullets. A soldier with sheer thickening fluid under traditional hard body armor might end up with bruised ribs instead of broken ribs.
Ruth Gough from d3o said it's unlikely that Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian athlete who was killed on the luge track, would have survived even if he had been wearing the padding with shear thickening fluid.
Kumaritshvili was traveling so quickly -- 90 mph -- that even if he were wearing a full suit of d3o, his body still would have wrapped around the pole, and nothing could really have saved him.
Downhill skiiers, on the other hand, typically have nets to catch them, or they hit thin, flexible obstacles like ski gates that bend to absorb blows, or they fall on the hard-packed snow. They typically don't hit completely solid objects at 90 mph.
"Lots of of people die in motorcycle crashes who wear protection," Gough said.
D3o is more expensive than traditional body protection. Gloves and jackets for skiing, motorcycling, snowboarding and other sports are already on sale. The Olympic suits from Spyder should be available for non-Olympians next year.