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Get a grip
When it comes to tackling slippery stuff , were struggling to keep our feet
WINTER: tis the season of reduced friction. Depending on where you are, you might be anticipating the first icy
days of the years coldest season, or already be well attuned to its attendant dangers. Ice plus incaution, we all know, equals slips, slides, broken bones and mangled cars and bicycles.
Not your problem, you might think, if you are basking on Bondi beach or sunning yourself in your Florida bolt-hole. You would be wrong. Even in Australia, where ice tends to be confined to the beer cooler, slips on low-friction surfaces such as tiled bathroom floors or oil-slicked filling station forecourts result in a dozen deaths, tens of thousands of injuries and an estimated AU$ 1 billion in lost productivity each year. Thats a picture comparable to those in the US and the UK. Slip resistance is a global problem, says
Richard Bowman, a slip consultant at Intertile Research in Melbourne.
Thats why, in safety laboratories around the world, fearless researchers are having our accidents for us, slipping and sliding their way, they hope, towards a better understanding of the perils of reduced friction. They do not have it easy. Friction might be everywhere except where it is suddenly absent but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to get to grips with .
Even supercomputers capable of calculating what goes on inside stars or modelling the most complex characteristics of the atomic world slip up on frictions intricacies. Friction is not a material property, its a system response, explains Roland Larsson of Lule University of Technology in Sweden. The amount of friction between two surfaces depends not only on their atomic structures,
but also on their context. The presence of a liquid between them can affect it, for example, as can whether they are moving, and if so at what relative velocity.
This means there is no simple formula for how surfaces glide across each other. If you give me two surfaces and ask me to predict the friction when I rub them together, I just cant: its too complex, says Larsson.
If the theorists are floored, the experimenters are at sixes and sevens. True, you can ask them to carry out measurements to define the coefficient of friction between two surfaces, a number that quantifies the frictional force that arises when you press them together with a certain force. But theres the rub: take any two friction aficionados and you will probably find that they do their measurements in completely different ways quite possibly >
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reaching two different answers. There is no overall, agreed way to do this, says Mark Redfern , a bioengineer and slip expert based at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
One popular technique for testing the slipperiness of a surface in contact with a human foot is the ramp test. Pioneered in Germany, it involves someone walking back and forth along a sample surface, the slope of which is slowly increased. The angle at which the tester slips off provides a measure of its slipperiness. Its hilarious to watch, says Paul Lemon, a slip investigator at Hawkins , a forensic investigation consultancy based in Cambridge, UK (see video at bit.ly/1cX78U ).
Bare feet or rubber shoes?
Hilarious it may be, but not everyone agrees on the ramp tests accuracy. Different people, depending on how they walk, can come up with different measures of a surfaces slipperiness, and there is no consensus on how best to carry the test out. The UKs Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has modified the test protocol in an attempt to control for this subjectivity. It also uses a different standard interface: while the German national standard specifies either bare feet on a surface coated with soapy water or heavy industrial footwear on motor oil, the UK relies on a rubber-soled shoe on a surface flooded with clean water.
The confusion doesnt end there. The ramp test is not portable, making it useless for in-situ forensic analysis at the site of an accident. Several tests have been developed to fill the gap. One of these is the pendulum test, in which a pivoted rod ending in a rubber-encased metal shoe is swung to the floor from a set height (see video at bit.ly/4EVFEM ). When the shoe hits the surface, the friction between the two impedes the pendulums progress. The degree to which it slows down is a measure of the coefficient of friction .
The HSE has pronounced the pendulum test the best way to assess the slipperiness of a floor. Along with the British Portable Skid Resistance Tester and friction coefficients quoted in British Pendulum Numbers it has been exported to safety authorities across the world. If you are driving on a road in Western Australia, for example, the skid resistance of its surface has probably been tested using this pendulum method.
Not everyone is impressed. The Americans dont like the pendulum test because it is too easy for the operator to influence it, says Steve Thorpe , principal scientist at the HSEs laboratory in Buxton, Derbyshire. Theyre
right; I can get any number I want out of the pendulum. Thats why, he says, it is essential to apply the test in accordance with strict guidelines such as those laid down by the HSE laboratory. No single test is perfect they all have limitations, Thorpe says. But one of the strengths of the pendulum test is that we know something about its limitations.
The pendulum has another drawback: its distinctly uncool 1950s feel. It looks quite agricultural and simplistic, says Lemon. The pendulum is an easy object for defence lawyers to ridicule in lawsuits claiming slip-related damages. Judges are quite easily swayed towards the idea that a more modern test is intrinsically better, he says.
One of these stylish interlopers is the Tortus, a self-propelled trolley that can be set loose on a surface, dragging a small rubber foot with it to give a measure of the
friction coefficient. With an array of buttons and a digital display, it certainly looks more reliable than the pendulum (see a video at bit.ly/4rztQC ). Its also more user-friendly. With the pendulum, you can be on your knees for hours taking readings off an analogue scale, Lemon says. With the Tortus you just press a button and it does the job.
Whether it does the job well is another matter. The Tortus test may give unrealistic results when used in wet conditions on a hard, smooth surface, says Alessandro Tenaglia of the Italian Center for Research and Testing for the Ceramics Industry , based in Bologna. Electrostatic forces acting between water and the rubber foot can sometimes make a wet surface appear to be less slippery than the same surface when dry. Small wonder, then, that the Tortus has gained favour with ceramic tile manufacturers keen to avoid prosecution for accidents on a wet bathroom floor.
That has led to friction in the courtroom. Historically the tile industry was keen on the Tortus as it exonerated tiles, Bowman says. Meanwhile, plaintiffs used the pendulum.
Careless walks cost
lives, but measuring
friction is tricky
19/26 December 2009 & 2 January 2010 | NewScientist | 51
The issue divides nations, too. This is proving to be a particular problem in the European Union, where a flooring or footwear product acceptable in one country should be acceptable in all the others but may not be, because different countries tests can give different results. A committee charged with establishing a single EU-wide test method is floundering in the face of conflicting national interests. France plans to adopt a modified ramp, while Germany wishes to stick to its original method. Spain and Portugal are swinging towards the pendulum, while in Italy the Tortus is winning out.
The US is not much better, says Harvey Cohen, a safety consultant at Error Analysis in San Diego, California. There simply are no universally accepted standard testing instruments or methods, he says.
Cohens suggestion to resolve the difficulties is to use less science, not more. My approach has been to focus on a more cognitive method, he says. In practice, this means more signs saying slippery when wet. Laughable as that may seem, one of the most dangerous situations is a rapid change in the friction coefficient. In one study, 64 per cent of 108 slip, trip and fall accidents that occurred in one hospital took place at a transitional area: dry to wet, or one type of floor to another.
The HSE is convinced that education can also play a part. Its Shattered Lives website is full of cautionary tales, and its Slip and Trip eLearning Package (STEP) aims to reduce the number of slips in the workplace. The HSEs researchers managed to cut this figure by 60 per cent in a fast-food chain simply by teaching the staff better floor-cleaning practices: explaining, for example, how the chemical reaction between grease and detergent takes time, so they could reduce the number of accidents simply by not rinsing the detergent away too soon.
Its a funny old world, where PhD scientists teach restaurant cleaners how to clean floors. But the sums of money at stake in insurance, legal costs and health premiums mean that no one is laughing. When department stores offer you a plastic bag for your dripping umbrella, its not a thoughtful gesture: its protection against being sued for damages if a customer should slip on a wet floor.
Its very easy to ridicule, says Thorpe. Thats everyones first reaction. But then they talk about some friend who had a terrible accident. Now thats ridiculous, isnt it?
Michael Brooks is the author of 13 Things that Dont
Make Sense (Doubleday/Profile, 2009)
Not a conundrum involving unwanted
body hair, but a controversy in the
world of downhill skiing that illustrates
the frictions friction can cause. The
problem revolves around a claim many
skiers make: that skis run faster when
coated with a slippery wax. This belief
was dealt a blow in 2006, when Leonid
Kuzmin , a Swedish cross-country
skiing trainer and a researcher at
Mid Sweden University in stersund,
declared that skis go faster without
wax ( Sports Engineering, vol 9, p 137 ).
That assertion did not go
unchallenged. Roland Larsson of Lule
University of Technology, Sweden,
points out that Kuzmin knew when
his skis were waxed and when they
werent, leaving him open to bias.
He was also skiing on different ice
each time he went down the slope.
Whenever you rub the surface,
its different for next time, he says.
If you measure a 1 per cent difference
in friction, is that because of the wax,
or because the ice changed?
A similar problem has plagued
Larssons own work. Earlier this year,
he was driving trucks around a frozen
lake to test which kinds of tyres cope
best with icy conditions. The first
unsatisfactory conclusion was that
each type of tyre suited a different
type of ice. Then it turned out that the
results seemed to depend on which
tyre was tested first.
This is because it is not the ice
itself that is slippery, but a layer of
liquid that separates the ice from the
air above at temperatures around
freezing. In Scandinavias frigid
winters, it is often so cold that this
layer does not form, so the icy surfaces
are not slippery.
In Larssons tests, the pressure
from the passage of tyres across the
ice was constantly changing the
consistency of the surface layer and
the passage of time didnt help either.
You start testing in the morning, then
the sun comes up and melts a thin
layer of ice. After an hour, you have
a different surface. Larsson says.
Thats a big problem when you want
to compare two tyres.
TO WAX OR
NOT TO WAX?
When stores offer you a bag for your dripping umbrella, its not just a thoughtful gesture
When it comes to tackling slippery stuff , were struggling to keep our feetBare feet or rubber shoes?