The Chemistry of Cold Play
If you look around at winter sports everywhere, it's difficult to see one where chemistry does not play a role.
For professionals and amateurs alike, achieving glory in winter sports goes beyond physics. From delivering a smooth slide down the slopes to shielding snowmobiles from the harshest elements, chemistry leads the way.
The Ion in Winter
Winter sports dare you to love them. The frigid elements can leave skiers, snowboarders, and skaters feeling sore, cold, and wet from seeping snow and trapped sweat. Fortunately, chemistry increases people's comfort and enjoyment of winter. According to the 2018 International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism¹ , roughly 400 million skiers hit the slopes during the 2017 season. New (and newly popular) options have appeared on the scene, too:
- Fat bikes—designed for extending the riding season—roll on nubby, large tires over snowy trails
- Snow polo players gallop over frosty fields
- Curling players furiously sweep ice paths to guide sliding stones to their teammates
For all new winter diversions—and through centuries of classic ones—chemistry has been on hand, helping make participants more comfortable and taking games to new levels. The science leaves its mark on everything, from outerwear made water resistant by Teflon EcoElite™ renewably sourced finish to a variety of Teflon™ fluoropolymer-based ski waxes, each giving users a different slide. Even snowmobiles are race-ready thanks to chemistry, as Krytox™ lubricants help the machines survive extreme cold.
Frenk Hulsebosch, Business Senior Director at Chemours, says “If you look around at winter sports everywhere, it’s difficult to see one where chemistry does not play a role.”
The Antidote to Wetsuits
The need for warm, dry, insulated clothing may be what most differentiates winter recreation from the (often) nearly naked pursuits of summer. Without properly engineered outerwear, winter sportsters may find themselves cold and wet—too uncomfortable for proper slope shredding. Here, though, technology comes to the rescue.
“Most of the clothes we have today are chemistry-driven innovations,” says John Sworen, Technical Fellow for Teflon EcoElite™ at Chemours. “We’re learning how to make advanced fabrics and better knits. These advances made through chemistry are enabling different levels of air permeability, perspiration absorption, stain resistance, and water repellency. Now we have smart clothing.”
Teflon EcoElite™ is a surface treatment. Applied to woven fabric, the product chemically bonds to the substrate’s individual fibers rather than forming a continuous film or layer that would block the fibers’ natural pores. Teflon EcoElite™ permits high-drop water repellency while allowing breathability between the surfaces. In vapor form, water caused by sweat can escape the sportswear—thanks to the original fabric design—while water from snowball assaults stays outside.
Indeed, the technology is proving attractive to consumers: analysts from Technavio market research forecast that, between 2017 and 2021, the waterproof, breathable textile market will grow worldwide at a 6% compound annual rate.2
The Polytetrafluoroethylene Slide
The first known ski wax was developed in the 1600s. Scandinavians—realizing they needed to keep water from soaking into their wooden skis—started sealing the planks with pine tar and pitch.
Today, skiers apply wax to help them glide faster. By filling in pores on the skis, wax lowers the friction between the snow and planks. Four centuries ago, pine tar was the only sealant available, but skiers now have many wax options—powders, liquids, solid blocks, sprays, and pastes—made up of different levels of fluorocarbons, hydrocarbons, and even soy. Plus, each type of wax is optimized for specific ski conditions, with Teflon™, the Chemours brand of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), added to help accomplish this.
“Depending on the type of weather, the type of snow, you put a different wax on it,” Hulsebosch explains. “There are different types of Teflon™ waxes for different conditions that make skis slide better.”
In describing how the wax works, Hulsebosch notes that skis don’t quite glide over solid snow. As the ski meets the powder, a tiny bit of melting happens, forming a thin layer of water between the snow and ski. Since Teflon™ is hydrophobic, adding PTFE to the wax helps the ski zoom right over the water’s surface tension.
That principle also applies to the sport of curling, where athletes must slide one leg on ice while holding the other in place. The shoe on the sliding leg features a Teflon™-treated base, allowing low-friction movement. For amateur curlers, though, Hulsebosch warns, “Walking on ice, if you put your weight on the wrong foot—the shoe treated with Teflon™—you do fall,” he laughs. “It’s very slippery.”
Extreme Chariot Rides
Besides improving performance in outerwear and ski gear, chemistry is also at work under the hood of winter machinery. Snowmobiles in particular—those chariots used for everything from transportation and races to stunt jumps—rely on lubrication that can tolerate extreme cold.
“When you look at motorized vehicles, like snowmobiles, some specific parts need lubrication at -40 ºC, -50 ºC,” Hulsebosch says. “For very cold places, that’s why we make Krytox™ lubricants—they can withstand such low temperatures."
“If you participate in snowmobile sports, or you wear waterproof, breathable coats, or you want to improve your glide on the slopes, you’re likely using a fluoropolymer. They help make winter more user-friendly,” he says.
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Most of the clothes we have today are chemistry-driven innovations. These advances made through chemistry are enabling different levels of air permeability, perspiration absorption, stain resistance, and water repellency.