Olympic secrets: Athletes bank on a lotus leaf

UBC researchers mimic mother nature to help Canada’s speed skaters go faster


The lotus leaf has a curious property, it doesn’t get wet. Water drops bead into perfect spheres, suspended by the air trapped in billions of nano-sized hairs. What’s that have to do with Olympic athletes? Well, water equals friction and friction is the enemy of speed, and speed is the stuff of Olympic glory. And so it was that a team of University of British Columbia engineers signed on to the Top Secret Program with a mandate both simple and complicated: make Canada’s athletes go faster.

If the “hydrophobia” (water repellency) of the lotus could be applied to sled runners, skates and ski bottoms, athletes could achieve higher speeds with less energy. “The idea was to mimic Mother Nature,” says engineering professor Savvas Hatzikiriakos. Researcher Anne Kietzig, who specializes in metals, began treating alloys with a laser from the university’s physics department. “You get different structures depending on the speed and the energy used by the laser,” she says. The result, viewed under an electron microscope, was a series of micro-level bumps covered in even smaller ripples measuring 500 billionths of a metre—a metallic lotus leaf.

The plan was to send this metal out to be coated with a water repellant surface, but a strange thing happened: the metal blades coated themselves. “What I initially did was just leave my samples lying around in the lab, not really paying attention to them for three weeks and all of a sudden they were hydrophobic, which we didn’t expect” says Kietzig. The treated blades bonded with carbon from the air, creating an ultra-water repellant surface, one that can reduce drag on ice by as much as 30-60 per cent.

So far, the governing bodies for bobsled, luge and skeleton won’t allow the treated runners to be used in competition. The break-through also came too late to be incorporated by Canada’s speed skaters at the 2010 Winter Games. But insiders say treated blades are likely to be used by Canadian skaters in the future. Meantime, Kietzig is happily slipping out of the lab in February to volunteer at the Olympic speed skating oval in Richmond.


Olympic secrets: Athletes bank on a lotus leaf

  1. This sounds like an amazing break through! But couldn’t this be kinda like cheating?? Honestly, when I think of us having more technology than everyone else, it makes me think of steroids that you can’t get tested for. Would something like this really be legal Olympic , International, or Nations competition??

    • I agree. It is like cheating. Olympic is the competition between human beings not tools.

    • Ask WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) Biofeedback and Neurofeedback are both legal and desirable. It is self regulation and is available to all athletes! In its simplest form, there is a GSR2 with Mind Over Muscle Program for about $100, less than most running shoes! And the ProComp Infiniti that was used by nine Canadian Olympic Teams is also used in fifty-five countries – while most are used by medical professionals, Sport Psychologists worldwide are learning of its availability for elite sport!

  2. I don't agree.

    bobsledding,hockey sticks, skis, snowboards, goggles. list is endless. it's all about getting a little bit of an edge. if you're not talented, the equipment won't serve you well regardless.

  3. Agree with V89. This product would not enhance the physical performance of an individual, but simply eliminate unnecessary resistance. To send my point across, let's assume knights decided to have a race wearing metal armor shoes, and someone came up with the concept of the running shoe… what that be cheating?

  4. at the highest level of competion such minutest differences make the margins between winners and the rest… and real talent might be at the losing end. may be olympics committe can set up sub committees to approve gadgets and make it available to all participants… Let the sportsman spirit prevail