Kick it, catch it, chemical engineer it (Day 203)

Kick it, catch it, chemical engineer it (Day 203)

16th December 2014

You may have noticed that there's a lot of sport on TV. It's big business and it underpins the marketing and commercial strategies of many broadcasters.

All of this money supports a growing and more sophisticated sporting industry with huge budgets and backroom teams.

In Formula 1, the Mercedes team employs... 700 staff to put just two cars on track at around 20 races each year. The McLaren Group, which includes McLaren Racing (the F1 team) employs 1,500 people and has revenues of nearly £300m (US$468).

In football, the England football team took more backroom staff than players to the Brazil 2014 World Cup including managers, technical coaches, fitness coaches, doctors, nutritionists, physiotherapist, sport scientists, chefs, video analysts, kit cleaners,  performance analysis, and more.

Even a tennis player like Andy Murray is supported by his fiancée, friends, coaches, fitness trainers (2), a 'hitting' partner, physio and management team (Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment).

So what about the chemical engineers - where are they in this entourage of specialists?

Photo credit - Aspen Photo -

Well, chemical engineers are there already, but unheralded and not necessarily on the sidelines with the rest of the team.

Advances in sport equipment, clothing, specialist foods - even the fertilizers used on natural pitches (and artificial ones too) have chemical engineering behind them.

Still not convinced? Here's two 'public' examples from 2014 alone.

American Football and sticky gloves

Tight end, Matt Furstenburg, had sticky hands as a three-year starter for the University of Maryland football team, good enough to later earn him a spot on the 2013 Baltimore Ravens practice squad.

However, Matt had a problem with his football gloves. They lost their tackiness after only a few days. Matt said: “The only solution was to buy new gloves... and they’re pretty expensive.”

During his senior season, Matt started researching the challenge. He partnered with Harry Geller, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, and together they approached professor Srinivasa Raghavan from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Working in Srinivasa’s laboratory with two chemical engineering students, the team discovered an odorless liquid solution that restores gloves to their like-new tackiness without leaving residue on the football.

The process eventually led to Grip Boost, a Columbia-based start-up that sells bottles of the sticky fluid.

The silent referee

From one code of football, to another. Last summer, a canister of vanishing foam appeared at the World Cup and ended overnight the ‘gamesmanship’ of creeping forward at free kicks.

It works like this - the referee places the ball, marches ten paces forward and sprays a line of what looks like squirty cream on the pitch and orders the wall to stay behind it. Simple.

The spray – invented by Argentinian journalist Pablo Silva – contains a propellant mixture made of butane, isobutene and propane gas; a foaming agent; water; and other chemicals.

When sprayed from the can, the gas depressurises and expands, creating water-covered droplets on the grass. As the butane begins to evaporate, the foam fades, leaving behind a water and surfactant residue.

It sounds simple, but a closer look at the patent filed by Silva, offers a glimpse at the complex series of assessments, chemicals screenings and recipe tweakings required to hone the formulation so it produces a “continuous well-delineated line”, disappears within three minutes, is non-toxic to people and grass; and does not form a slippery film that could be dangerous to players.

Of course, chemical engineers don't form part of a traditional backroom team of most sports women and men. But strip away the technology, food supplements, clothing, materials and you can guarantee they wouldn't look as good, or create the sporting spectacles we all enjoy so much.

Here's proof: Giants' Odell Beckham makes catch of the year (video).