Skis equipped with an ingenious new self-waxing device that enables them to travel quicker could make a dramatic entry onto the skiing scene in the 2008/09 World Cup season.

The device continuously applies fresh wax to the bottom of the ski during a race. Its developers are now working with manufacturers, with the aim of incorporating it into skis used in top-class international competition as early as next year.

Validated test results from the Alps show that skiers using the revolutionary system can complete a course 1-2% quicker than using conventional skis, which gradually lose their pre-applied layer of wax as they descend a slope. The gap between first and 20th place in a World Cup event can be under two seconds, so the new system has the potential to play a key role in deciding the outcome of major skiing competitions.

The Wildfire system exploits micro fluidic technology to ensure continuous waxing of skis as they move over a surface. Crucially it does this without moving parts, simply using gravity and the pressure from the skier’s feet – making it perfectly legal for ski races including the Olympics.

Tests on the new waxing system have been carried out in the laboratory, on artificial matting ski slopes and artificial snow in the UK, and under genuine Alpine conditions in Austria and France:

Phil Smith, one of the testers of the skis on UK artificial slopes, said: “It feels like I’m on snow! The skis were much quicker and smoother and there was no change in the turning ability of the ski. I still have edge control.”

Becky Hammond, one of Britain’s top women freestyle skiers, said: “I immediately noticed the difference in the skis. I was going twice as fast which helped me to get twice as much air in the halfpipe and on the big air”.

The device has been developed by Wildfire Snowsports Limited, a spin-out company from the University of Sheffield, building on university research projects funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The development and capabilities of the device will be described at this year’s BA Festival of Science in York.

In ski racing, wax is applied to skis to create a lubricating effect and so help the skier travel faster. As well as constantly providing a fresh layer of lubricant, the new technology also enables dirt, which can slow a skier down, to be automatically pushed away from the underside of the ski.

“The device fully complies with all FIS (International Ski Federation) rules and is the only one of its kind in the world to have been routinely tested and proven,” says Professor Peter Styring, who has led the project and will deliver the York presentation. “Suitable for skis used in events such as downhill, super giant slalom and potentially cross-country too, the device has also been incorporated into freestyle skis and snowboards – extra speed means riders can achieve extra height in halfpipe* events, for instance.”

A sealed reservoir containing a waxy lubricant is attached to the ski under the front of the foot, replacing the small block that conventionally separates the ski binding from the ski. A series of tiny valves and pipework continuously deliver an optimum amount of lubricant to the base of the ski. The normal pumping motion of the skier’s legs is harnessed to push the fluid through the system – no supplementary energy source is needed.

The biodegradable and environmentally friendly lubricant, a polymer whose composition is a closely guarded secret, was also developed as part of the project. Overall, the initiative has harnessed expertise in the fields of chemical engineering, chemistry, polymer science, mechanical engineering and physics.

“In December, we’re due to begin testing the system with a major global ski manufacturer,” says Peter Styring. “We’re also discussing with another company the scope to retrofit the device to existing skis.”

All the technology used in the system is patent protected, with the exception of the lubricant.

The 3 year research project ‘Chemical Reactions in Microreactors: Reactor Design, Chemical Selectivity and Reaction Control’ ran from 1999 to 2002 and received EPSRC funding of just over £480,000. The 3 year research project ‘Elastomer Gels as Electromechanical Components in Low Reynolds Number Chemical Processing’ ran from 2001 to 2004 and received total EPSRC funding of nearly £400,000. As well as a range of other important outcomes, these projects provided the fundamental understanding of microreactors (devices in which chemicals flow through tiny tubes) and elastomers (plastics that are easily deformed by a force) that has underpinned the development of the new non-stop waxing system.

- Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)