ERDC researchers support the USA Luge team in quest for Olympic Gold

Published 2:30 pm Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Sliding on ice at speeds exceeding 90 mph is terrifying for most people, but the USA Luge team is seeking assistance from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) along with academic and industry leaders to go even faster.

In the sport’s rule book, luge is afforded a great deal of engineering leeway to customize their sleds and runners.

They have their own team of technicians to manufacture the sleds, and athletes routinely engage in the design/build process making luge not only a competition of technique but also one of technology.

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It’s all about moving fast on ice, and as such, the team reached out to Dr. Emily Asenath-Smith, lead of the Ice Adhesion Facility at ERDC’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL).

“We first started discussions about high-speed ice friction research about six years ago,” said Asenath-Smith. “Ice adhesion and ice friction are both interface phenomena. They are essentially ice interacting with materials, and they are very related research areas.

“CRREL has worked in this space for a number of years,” she added. “The Army cares a lot about ice friction — whether they are pulling sleds in cold regions or driving vehicles across the frozen ground.”

Unfortunately, when USA Luge first contacted Asenath-Smith, there wasn’t enough time to develop a productive collaboration.

“They were getting ready for the 2018 Winter Olympics, but because of timelines to make modifications, there just wasn’t adequate time to do the number of studies that we needed to do,” she said.

However, this time when the team reached out in the fall of 2022, the timelines finally lined up.

“They got back in touch with me, and said, ‘Hey, we’re ready and pulling together a research team — we have time,’ so we started talking about what our involvement in the luge research team might look like,” said Asenath-Smith. “What research studies could we do at CRREL? How could we support them?”

To explore and ultimately define the partnership, Asenath-Smith and Dr. Austin Lines, a mechanical research engineer and ice friction researcher at CRREL, accepted the invitation to a workshop held in Park City, Utah, in March 2023.

This effort solidified the interdisciplinary research and development (R&D) team and established a roadmap to develop approaches that decrease ice friction and increase speed for the luge team.

“USA Luge took a very organized approach to building out an R&D team for their sport,” said Asenath-Smith. “They had some of their industry research experts, me and Austin — we all went to Park City and engaged in extensive discussions, tours and learning for two days. We met athletes, toured the facilities and engaged in deep cross-disciplinary discussions about all the aspects that affect friction and the interaction of ice with materials.”

Consequently, the Luge R&D team is now working on an extensive test plan that integrates technologies that are being developed in other CRREL programs, mainly those in the Materials and Manufacturing Program.

“Essentially this effort fits under a portfolio in advanced materials that we have going with the South Dakota Mines,” said Asenath-Smith. “We were able to connect the luge team with them to help engineer new alloys for their runners. Since we already have a relationship with the university, it’s beneficial to us all. We will get to test some of the materials the luge team may be interested in — albeit indirectly.”

Understanding high and variable speed ice friction is of strategic importance not only to the USA Luge team but to U.S. Army operations in the Arctic.

While most mobility and traction applications require good adhesion between ice and tire materials, skis and sleds are an important mobilization method where decreased friction can reduce soldier fatigue and reduce fuel consumption.

The collaborative efforts between USA Luge and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can have a profound effect in the future.

“They have so much liberty to engineer and innovate with their sleds that they are the perfect team to undertake an R&D venture,” said Asenath-Smith. “Ultimately, our success will be determined by the luge team’s success at future Olympic games. There just might be a gold medal on the horizon.”