Plastics power advances in everything from running shoes to kayaks

Technology |  3 min. read
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What do running shoes, hiking boots, tennis rackets, basketballs, kayaks and bike helmets all have in common?  Besides the fact that, with the warmer months upon us, many of us will be digging them out again, all of that outdoor gear, and a lot more, would not be possible without petrochemicals.

Running Shoes:

If your daily run starts with a pair of Nike Vaporflys, for instance, what makes you fly in those shoes, is high-tech foam sandwiched around a carbon fiber plate.  Runner’s World put the ZoomX Vaporfly Next on its list of best running shoes for 2020: “That Pebax-based foam is extremely lightweight, highly cushioned and has the most energy return of all the shoes we’ve ever measured in our lab.”

And that foam is a complex block copolymer of modified polyamide and polyether, which are made from petrochemicals like butadiene or benzene for the polyamide part, modified with adipic acid that starts with benzene, and a glycol for the polyether part that starts with ethylene or propylene.

And it isn’t all about the foam either, the ultra-lightweight uppers, which are so light that they can add more foam for the heal, are also water resistant, so if you’re running in the rain, you can stay dry and comfortable.  These tops aren’t simple nylon or polyester, though; no, they’re as high-tech as the soles.  It’s a novel weave using thermoplastic elastomers, one of which is polyurethane that begins with benzene or toluene.

Same story as you go down the rest of Runner’s World’s list.  The Skechers Razor 3, the Reebok Floatride, the Hoka One One Rincon, there’s the magic of that petrochemical-based foam making each of them light, strong and fast.

Basketball:

Maybe the warm weather for you means getting outside to shoot some hoops.  And if you’ve got some game, your basketball is probably a composite leather on the outside and a synthetic rubber on the inside, with a nylon wrapper in between.  In petrochemical terms, that means a butylene-based rubber “bladder” which is the part of the ball you put air in that makes the ball bounce.  The nylon uses the petrochemicals benzene and butadiene as its starting point.  And on the outside, another “made from benzene” material, polyurethane, which is also used as a coating on the leather balls used by the NBA and WNBA.

Kayaks:

Hitting the water? The building blocks for your kayak are almost certainly made from some sort of petrochemical. A fact that the world’s seal population is probably happy about, since their skins were often the covering for some of the first kayaks.

If you got a good deal on it, your kayak is probably made from a molded polyethylene, made from ethylene.  Your more expensive kayaks are most likely a composite material, like fiberglass, which is glass fiber in a petrochemical-made epoxy (propylene and benzene are the building blocks for epoxies), or maybe even an ABS thermoplastic, which is a copolymer that includes acrylonitrile (from propylene), butadiene and styrene from ethylene and benzene).

You can even get a kayak made from recycled plastic. And that plastic is originally made from – petrochemicals like ethylene.

Of course, if you live in an apartment, you might be a little short on kayak storage space.  So for you, there are inflatable kayaks.  Just let the air out and fold them up when you’re not out on the water. And these inflatables are possible thanks to ethylene, which is used to make the vinyl in the less expensive inflatables, or toluene, which makes a more expensive polyurethane covering, tough enough that the Coast Guard uses it.

Bicycling:

When you head outside to ride a bike, you’re hopefully sporting a helmet.  Helmets are able to be both comfortable and functional thanks to lightweight, super strong polymers like polycarbonate (from benzene) or ABS (from propylene, butadiene, ethylene and benzene) on the outside, and foam that soaks up any impact on the inside.  Usually that’s made of expanded polystyrene or polypropylene, the same stuff that’s used in protective packaging like Styrofoam. And just like the styrene in the ABS polymer, it begins with ethylene and benzene.

But it’s not just the helmet that wouldn’t be possible without petrochemicals. Many of today’s bikes use carbon fiber reinforced composites for the frames, handle bars, stems, seat posts, rims, cranks, and more. The most common resin to hold those carbon fibers in place is a polycarbonate-based epoxy that uses propylene and benzene as building blocks.

Climbing Rope:

If you want to live a little more on the edge, maybe you’ve taken up rock climbing. An if that’s the case, you’re going to want to be sure that rope is strong enough to hold you whether you’re climbing up or rappelling down. Most climbing ropes are made with nylon, which starts with the petrochemicals benzene for the adipic acid part and butadiene for the HMDA part. Nylon allows the rope to stretch and better absorb the impact of a falling climber.

And if that’s too many petrochemicals for you, here’s the ten second synopsis:  whatever you like to do outdoors — baseball, soccer, football, roller blading, rock climbing — odds are the chemicals made from petroleum and natural gas are at the heart of the gear you’ll need, even if you’re just going out for a walk.

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