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Faster, higher, further: the role of materials technology in sporting performance at the BA Festival of Science

How can cyclists go faster, pole vaulters go higher and golfers hit the ball further? Being fitter and stronger obviously helps, but what about the effect of engineering, technology and the materials science used to create the latest sports equipment?

“There are always new improvements being introduced into sport,” says Dr Claire Davis, Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham. “While most changes are incremental in nature, major step changes in performance and safety have occurred when new materials are introduced. For example the pole used in pole vaulting has changed from solid wood to bamboo to aluminium and now glass or carbon fibre composite materials constitute the poles of choice.”

“Some of the latest materials developments, include so called ‘smart materials’, such as piezoelectric ceramics. These develop an electric voltage when stressed and can be used in active damping systems for skiers and tennis players, with the aim of minimising injuries and improving performance.”

Dr Davis will make her comments as part of the BA Isambard Kingdom Brunel Award Lecture – ‘The role of materials technology in sporting performance’, an event at the BA Festival of Science. The Festival is taking place in Norwich from 2-9 September and will bring together over 300 of the UK’s top scientists and engineers to discuss the latest scientific developments with the public.

Dr Davis will investigate the influence of equipment design and raw materials on various aspects of sporting performance and discuss the ‘technology gap’ that has arisen between developed and developing nations. She will also highlight the potential for British sporting success at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics in the technology-driven sports at which the nation has traditionally excelled (for example: cycling, sailing and rowing).

Dr Davis will also consider technological developments in cycling, golf and tennis, where the changing materials and design of rackets has increased the speed and power of serves but caused audience dissatisfaction by reducing the length of rallys at tournaments played on fast surfaces, such as grass at Wimbledon.

The opportunity to present a popular and prestigious BA award lecture at the Festival of Science is offered to five outstanding communicators each year. The award lectures aim to promote open and informed discussion on issues involving science and actively encourage young scientists to explore the social aspects of their research, providing them with reward and recognition for doing so.

In addition to lectures and debates at the University of East Anglia, the Festival will also feature a host of events throughout Norwich as part of the Science in the City programme.

This year’s Festival is supported by the University of East Anglia, the East of England Development Agency and Microsoft Research. The Press Centre is sponsored by AstraZeneca.

For further information on the BA Festival of Science, visit

Lisa Hendry | alfa
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