Shock factor - d3o

It’s orange, squishy, and coming to a snowboard jacket, football or pair of ballet shoes near you very soon.

Invented by engineer turned entrepreneur Richard Palmer, d3o™ belongs to a family of oddball materials known as non-Newtonian fluids, which includes famous relatives such as cornflour suspensions, ketchup and shampoo. What these liquids have in common is that their viscosity (how runny they are) varies depending on the forces they are subjected to.

Shaking a bottle of shampoo or ketchup makes the contents flow more easily, whilst cornstarch and d3o™ conversely become solid on impact. ‘d3o™ contains a molecular bond which is sensitive to the speed at which the material moves. The net result is that you end up with a soft material with very very high shock absorption or impact protection properties,’ explains Palmer.

From the lab to the slopes

A keen snowboarder, Palmer was quick to spot the material’s potential, but first needed to find a way of integrating it into clothing. ‘I recognised that if I could build a material which made use of those liquid properties but was no longer a liquid then that would be extremely useful in the context of snowboarding protection,’ he says. His solution was to transform the d3o™ goo into a foam-like structure which is flexible, retains its shape and offers top notch shock absorbency.

As well as banishing bulky kneepads to the backs of snowboarders’ closets, d3o has found applications throughout the sports industry, offering everything from motorbike protective gear to goalkeepers’ gloves.

In competitive sport however, technological innovation can be a sticky subject. Take for example the stir caused by Speedo’s streamlined LZR suit, whose wearers (including Michael Phelps) smashed 79 world records in 2008. Say two snowboarders were to compete, one wearing cumbersome, traditional kneepads and the other decked out in comfy d3o wear, would the latter not benefit from an unfair advantage?

‘Technological innovation is a healthy ingredient in sport and only ever offers a temporary advantage,’ says Palmer. He argues that any performance enhancing technology is eventually either banned by governing bodies, or gets taken up or copied by competitors so that everyone benefits from it.

‘That short term advantage is earned by the people involved – it doesn’t just happen by accident, it happens because they’re putting energy and resources into finding a better way of doing something. It’s a natural process of competition.’

Palmer also points out that technology is just one of many factors that can improve a sportsperson’s performance. ‘Whatever you do, people are going to find some way of being competitive,’ he says. A completely level playing field is thus impossible when you consider that training regime, diet, or financial resources also give some competitors a head start. Training at high altitudes where oxygen is scarce for instance gives some long distance runners a considerable advantage over their rivals.

‘My view is that products will always improve and the job of technology is to allow the athlete to perform better,’ he continues. ‘If you take a protective ski suit, then what you want is for the skier to feel more free, more able to just ski down the mountain and less concerned about impacting the slalom gates. You don’t want protection to inhibit their ability to perform.’

Sport is not the only area where d3o™ is having an impact. The d3o™ team is currently working with the military to develop protective wear that would allow soldiers to move freely without compromising their safety. ‘I’m always more interested in what you can do as opposed to what you have already done,’ enthuses Palmer.

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27 May 2009

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