Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Michael Phelps, Polyurethane and the High-Tech Swimsuit Controversy

What would Otto Bayer think? Bayer, the “father of polyurethane chemistry” discovered and patented polyurethanes in 1937 while working at Bayer in Germany. More than 70 years later, this versatile organic polymer — which was developed as a replacement for scarce rubber during World War II and went on to a multitude of applications — is now at the heart of a competitive swimming controversy over high-tech swimsuits.  

Have you heard about this? Briefly: More than 20 world records have been set this week at the world swimming championships in Rome and this phenomenon has re-opened a debate about the expensive high-tech suits that some swimmers are wearing and others are not. An unheralded German swimmer, Paul Biedermann, upset American Olympic legend Michael Phelps (and broke Phelps' world record) in the 200-meter freestyle on Tuesday. Biedermann was sporting the Arena X-Glide, currently the latest in high-tech swimwear. Phelps was wearing the  Speedo LZR Racer, which, only months ago was considered the best in speed-enhancing apparel. Let the swimsuit arms race begin! Many swimmers have ties to sponsors that prevent them from switching to a competitor's suit. In a sport where split-seconds matter, the whole affair has led to complaints from athletes and coaches and a philosophical debate among sports enthusuasts: Is the “playing field” level? Are we seeing the best swimmer win? Or is it the suit?

From a plastics perspective, the fact that these high-tech swimsuits rely on polyurethane is fascinating  — the material, in one form or another, has been comercially available since 1954! According to USA TODAY, here is a breakdown on the current polyurethane-based models being pushed by the three brands competing in the swimsuit wars:

Whereas 50% of the LZR is covered with panels made of polyurethane, a material that floats, the Jaked J01 is coated 100% in polyurethane. The Arena X-Glide is coated with a thin layer of “biorubber” to increase buoyancy.  The LZR has ultrasonically bonded seams to reduce drag. But the Jaked J01, because of “thermo-welding,” has no seams, and the Arena X-Glide has no stitching anywhere and no bonding on the front of the suit… Don't expect to find a Jaked J01 or an Arena X-Glide at your local store (an online search found one J01 on eBay). The manufacturers have had time only to produce enough multi-use suits, which cost from $250 to more than $500, for the world's elite.

It's not clear if these suits will soon be surpassed by a new nano-fabric that both Wired Magazine and NewScientist reported on in late 2008.  Developed by scientists at the University of Zurich and comprised of  polyester fabrics coated with microscopic silicone filaments, the material was lauded for its potential to lead to the first waterproof swimsuit that would reduce drag by nearly 20%.

Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Polyester or polyurethane — whichever polymer takes the lead in the swimsuit wars, it will be another win for plastics innovation.


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