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Curlers' gadget spurs study of ice

February 17, 2006 By Mark Peplow This article courtesy of Nature News.

Research team builds on electronic brooms to help cars stay on the road.

An unusual partnership between Scottish scientists and Olympic curlers has spawned a bit of research that could help cars to grip icy roads.

It's rare that winter sports drive scientific progress. But when materials scientist Jane Blackford and her team at Edinburgh University started helping out Great Britain's Olympic curling team, the work spurred them to find out more about how different materials slip on ice.

"The curling started it all off, but now we're working with Ford and Jaguar on tyre-ice friction," says Blackford.

Curling involves sliding a large, polished stone on ice towards a target, while team members frantically sweep a path in front of it. This sweeping melts the ice slightly to create a thin film of water, which helps the stone glide. "Ice is slippy because you get frictional heating," explains Blackford.

In 2000, Blackford's team helped to develop a 'sweep ergometer' for the curlers. The device, used in training sessions, measures how the brush is moving and how hard it is pushing against the ice. Monitoring during training helps the curlers perfect their sweeping.

But since these first forays into the study of ice friction - known in the trade as cryotribology - Blackford's research has blossomed.

Clean sweep

To learn more about how ice melts under pressure, the team designed and built an instrument to study the process. It looks like a miniature record player; a needle of material such as steel or rubber drags over a rotating disk of ice. After each trial, the team look at the ice with an electron microscope.

The set-up gives a much more detailed picture of how different forces, temperature, and other factors affect the microscopic properties of ice than has been seen before, says Blackford. Results of their research are released this week by the Journal of Glaciology1.

The work is important for understanding how materials move on ice, says Bob Williams, a research engineer at Jaguar Cars in Coventry, UK, which funded Blackford's research.

Tyre and ice

"Vehicle safety ultimately comes down to the contact patch between the tyre and the road," says Williams. "And when it comes to snow and ice, we really need a better understanding."

Williams says the research could improve anti-lock braking systems, which ensure that a sudden lunge for the brake pedal is translated into a smooth increase in braking on the wheels. It could also help with traction-control systems, which reduce the wheel-spin caused by flooring the gas pedal. It may even help tyre manufacturers reformulate their rubber for better grip, adds Williams.

"And all this stems from curling," says Blackford.

Sadly the high-tech training didn't prove enough to have Great Britain's women beat the favourites from Canada. As this article went to press they lost to the Canadians in preliminary rounds at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

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  1. Marmo B. A., Blackford J. R.& Jeffree, C. E. . J. Glaciol., 51. 391 - 398 (2005).


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