Ski lift

A passion for the piste combined with chemistry know-how has led to a self-waxing ski that is said to increase speed. Siobhan Wagner reports

When Peter Styring was reading chemistry at Sheffield University he wondered if there was a way to combine his work with his passion for skiing.

Styring — president of the university’s ski club — had read about a research group that tested fluorocarbon waxes for skis in the Alps.

‘I thought this is just paradise,’ he said. ‘And I always hoped to do something similar.’

His chance came last year when he came up with the idea for a ski that waxes itself as it travels down the slope, enabling skiers to travel quicker. The ski uses a series of tiny valves and pipework to continuously deliver lubricant to its base. The pumping motion of the skier’s legs pushes the fluid through the system.

Styring is now working with manufacturers and aims to incorporate his system into the laminate structure of skis used in top-class international competition as early as next year.

Styring said the device’s design is also simple enough to retrofit into existing skis. The lubricant wax, which is an undisclosed polymer, is placed in a sealed unit between the binding and ski where the riser plate usually sits. A small pipe leads the wax from the reservoir to the front of the ski and then to the base. With any change in pressure, such as when the skier turns or goes over a bump, the reservoir bends and pumps the fluid out.

The system — which will cost £50-60 on a preformed ski and £80-120 retrofitted — follows eight years of research in microreactors and elastomers. ‘With the other projects, we were really just looking at flowing liquid through micron-sized tubes, and that’s what we’re doing with the skis,’ said Styring. ‘We put a lubricant through a micron-sized pipe, and use the weight of the ski as a fluid delivery system to do all the pumping.’

Any device that promises to speed up a racer’s performance is bound to be considered with suspicion, but Styring insists that his skis are fully compliant with International Ski Federation rules.

‘The FIS rule book clearly states you can’t have any external energy source such as batteries,’ said Styring. ‘That’s why we went for the fluidic system. It’s not external because you need the skier there to make it work.’

The rules also state that you cannot leave any fluid on the slope that affects the snow or the performance of the person following. ‘We’ve used environmentally-friendly lubricants that don’t damage the snow, and trials have proven that it doesn’t affect the person who is behind you.’

The lubricant reservoir can hold about 60ml — sufficient for 2.5 minutes in a pressure heavy downhill race, or six hours for a recreational skier.

Arguably the system does waste a lot of lubricant because much of it is rubbed off on the slope as it spreads across the ski’s base. ‘It wears off very quickly, but there is always more coming in,’ said Styring. ‘It also removes any dirt accumulated on the ski, and stops abrasion,’ he added.

Some might wonder if the constant lubrication causes a loss of control for skiers, but Styring said the test skiers said it feels like a normal ski, only it goes a little faster.

Up until now, Styring’s team has used only indoor ski facilities such as Xscape-Castleford in Leeds because European ski resorts suffered relatively low amounts of snowfall this year. Indoor facilities have been ideal for some tests because researchers can operate in a temperature and climate-controlled environment. ‘The problem is that artificial snow has a different structure to alpine snow,’ said Styring.

With artificial snow, the researchers have proven that the system will add an eight per cent increase in speed, but the true test will come in December when Styring hopes to take his research to the Alps.