British athletes in Tokyo, including top medal winners, used wearable technology designed by Swansea University experts, with a printed carbon ink heater to keep their muscles warm before competing.
To ensure the concept garments were suitable for elite sport, a Swansea team made up of experts from the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating (WCPC) and Applied Sports, Technology Exercise and Medicine (A-STEM) collaborated with the English Institute of Sport (EIS), Haydale, Screentec and Newbury Electronics.
Maintaining muscle temperature at a constant level on the day of competition can improve an athlete’s performance, research by the A-STEM team has shown. At the level of elite sport, where the margins are so fine, the slightest boost in performance can mean the difference between winning and losing.
The problem is how to keep an athlete’s muscles warm right up until the last minute. This is where the WCPC team and the other collaborators’ technical ingenuity came in.
The WCPC invented a printed flexible heater using carbon-based stretchable graphene ink that can be directly attached to fabric. The idea grew out of researcher Andrew Claypole’s project as a student at Swansea University’s Materials and Manufacturing Academy. He developed flexible carbon and silver inks to create heaters that could be directly attached to stretchable fabrics.
Dr James Claypole from the WCPC explains some of the technical challenges involved:
“The stretchable garments had to be lightweight not to impede movement, machine washable, waterproof, and run from a small battery. This required custom electronics and control systems, a method of integrating the panels into the garment, and a means of connecting the soft, flat printed heaters to conventional electronics.”
Despite these challenges, the Swansea team, along with the other collaborators, succeeded in developing a working heated garment. The work was supported by the Welsh Government’s SMART Expertise programme, as well as the EIS. A-STEM researchers Dr Neil Bezodis, Dr Louise Burnie and Professor Liam Kilduff all work closely with EIS on elite athlete performance issues.
Dr Neil Bezodis from A-STEM, research lead for the project, said:
“This is an excellent example of interdisciplinary research combining expertise from across Swansea University to develop an innovative solution that can enhance the impact on a real-world performance issue”.
Dr Matt Parker, Director of Performance Innovation for EIS, said:
“It is great to see the dedication and hard work of the whole team bring to reality garments that have been used by British athletes. This is something we will look to build on for future events.”
Welsh Government Economy Minister Vaughan Gething said:
“I’m delighted that we’ve been able to support this collaborative project which has resulted in making a difference to an athlete’s performance at the highest level. Congratulations to all involved.”