A pair of MIT students spent the year leading up to the 2006 Winter Olympics testing a new ice skate design that may help Olympic speed skaters break world records someday.
Seniors Kieran Culligan and David Walfisch, both majoring in aeronautics and astronautics, have spent the past year testing the Fulcrum Clapskate for Okolo Sports Technologies, a company in Boxford.
In an Experimental Projects Lab effort, the two worked closely with their adviser, Kim Blair, the founding director of the MIT Center for Sports Innovation, which strives to use science and technology to improve sport performance.
The Fulcrum Clapskate is designed to mimic the motion a human foot makes when walking.
It has several pivot points and a versatile positioning system that can be tailored to a skater's skill level or preference, according to Okolo's web site. The original Clapskate has just one pivot point, which allows the heel to lift up off the blade.
The Fulcrum Clapskate pivots, but it also slides back at the toe, allowing the foot to stroke ball to toe. The result is a more "natural stroke," Culligan said.
When the original Clapskate came into wide use in 1996, world records improved 5 percent to 10 percent, said Culligan, who said he hopes the Fulcrum Clapskate might have the same effect.
Culligan and Walfisch tested the design with eight skaters, aged 16-60, all of whom had skated competitively.
They used a controlled lab setting for the tests, using a large whiteboard slick with dusting spray as the ice. Culligan explained that studying humans on an actual ice rink would have been more difficult because, "you have a moving subject you have to chase around."
Testers were asked to strap on one skate and push off with their other foot to slide along the roughly 4-foot board. A slow-motion camera recorded the stroke so that Culligan and Walfisch could compare measurements from the original Clapskate and the Fulcrum Clapskate.
"The testers said they could really feel a difference," Culligan said.
Measuring angles and speed from both skates, the researchers decided that the Fulcrum skate was indeed faster than the original.
The design they tested will not be in use at this year's Winter Olympics, which start Feb. 10 in Turin, Italy. Still, the two are proud of their work.
"If you come out with a new skate, it can often be very hard to get the pros to start using it," said Culligan, who noted that most of the professionals who helped them with testing were impressed by the technology.
"People have said it was the fastest thing on the straightaways, but tended to slow them down on the corners," Blair said.
For Walfisch and Culligan, both of whom are avid athletes, the project was about more than speed skating records: "We definitely learned a lot," said Walfisch.