Brussels, 22 Feb 2006
A project involving researchers in Scotland and the Great Britain Olympic curling team, designed to investigate how different materials slide on ice, could lead to safety improvements in road transport.
Curling requires players to slide a large polished stone along an ice track towards a target. To help the stone glide along, members of the team sweep the ice in front of it with specially designed brushes, which melts the ice slightly creating a slippery film of water.
Jane Blackford and her team of materials scientists at Edinburgh University began working with the curlers in 2000. They developed a 'sweep ergometer' - a device that measured the pressure and movement of the brush as it moved over the ice - which was used in training sessions to perfect the curlers' sweeping technique.
Since then, Dr Blackford and her team have learned much about how ice melts under pressure, and have developed a new device to investigate how different materials affect the process. A disk of ice rotates on what looks like a miniature record player while different materials are in contact with the surface; afterwards the researchers analyse the results using an electron microscope.
As a result, the team has gained valuable insights into how different materials, forces, temperature and other factors influence the microscopic properties of ice. Dr Blackford told Nature.com: 'The curling started it all off, but now we're working with Ford and Jaguar on tyre-ice friction.'
Bob Willis, a research engineer at Jaguar Cars, which funded the team's most recent work, added: 'Vehicle safety ultimately comes down to the contact patch between the tyre and the road. And when it comes to snow and ice, we really need a better understanding.'
The results of the research could be used to improve anti-lock braking systems, which are designed ensure smooth, skid-free braking under any conditions, or to enhance traction-control systems, which aim to reduce wheel-spin caused by over-acceleration or slippery road surfaces. The research may also enable tyre manufacturers to identify different materials that will improve their grip on ice, Mr Williams adds.
However, long before the research results are transformed into commercial applications, Britain's curlers will be hoping to transform their newfound knowledge into gold, at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. At the time of writing, it is left to the British men's team to achieve that, after the women's team and defending Olympic champions slipped up and spun out in the earlier rounds.
The research will be published in the Journal of Glaciology