Materials chemistry: promise for the Olympics?

The properties of the material are crucial when manufacturing a material designed to improve performance.

Read the article on the Sorbonne University website.

Resistance, durability, friction… With the Polymer Chemistry group at the Paris Institute of Molecular Chemistry (IPCM), teacher-researcher Sandrine Pensec is working on modifying these properties for a wide range of applications. One day, perhaps, this could lead to new applications for top-level sports equipment.

The practice of top-level sport has evolved considerably, with equipment becoming increasingly flexible, resistant and less subject to stress. So, with the Olympic Games on the horizon, it was tempting to ask what materials chemistry could contribute. “The materials we work with are polymers that have the ability to form hydrogen bonds, and we modulate these weak bonds to obtain the properties we want. We can add additives to polymers or functionalise them to give them different capabilities, such as self-repair,” explains Sandrine Pensec, a materials chemistry specialist at the IPCM (Sorbonne University/CNRS).

Sport chemistry

No more snapping racket strings or wearing away pavements, a subject tested with road tarmac. “In the field of sport, we can imagine that to increase the performance of a material, we can make it more elastic, more resistant“, explains Sandrine Pensec. The researcher even sees another avenue for these new hybrid materials: recyclability. “We can also use this concept to obtain a material with the desired properties but which, in the absence of cross-linking1, will be potentially reusable“.

The group already has several patents on the applications of its research, in particular on improving the properties of thermoplastic polyurethane elastomers and silicones, materials that are ubiquitous in sports equipment. Thermoplastic elastomers are used to make the soles of sports shoes and anti-perspirant textiles, as well as diving fins and ski pole handles, for their flexibility, resistance to wear and tear and stability against ultraviolet rays. Silicones are found, for example, in ankle and heel protectors, shin and toe protectors and arch protectors, as well as in various other items of equipment: bracelets, cups, shoelaces, etc. “A well-chosen modification to the structure of a material has enabled us to transform an industrial thermoplastic elastomer into a self-healing elastomer“, emphasises the researcher.

But let’s not get ahead of science: “We’re trying to improve or find new materials, but our priority is first and foremost to understand the relationship between chemical structure, assembly and properties, which remains fundamental research“, Sandrine Pensec points out.

Formation of a three-dimensional network by strong chemical bonding

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