Today, the 23rd Winter Olympics officially open in Pyeongchang, South Korea. I’ve always been a fan of this fortnight festival of snow and ice.

Although I grew up in a suburb of Chicago that’s famous for speedskating, I haven’t spent much time on the ice. And, despite my Austrian heritage, I gave up on skiing a long time ago.

But, for some reason, I’ve always been intrigued with bobsledding. So, I was interested to hear about a new concept for the sport recently proposed by an engineering professor at Purdue University.

Jan-Anders Mansson, director of the Composites Manufacturing and Simulation Center, believes that icy bobsled tracks could someday be replaced with a lubricated plastic surface. That innovation would enable bobsledding events to be held in parts of the world that typically aren’t associated with the sport, such as big cities or countries with warm climates.

“[Bobsled tracks] are enormously costly facilities, and some of them don’t have many people using it,” says Mansson, who is a professor of materials engineering and also teaches a sports technology course at Purdue. “So, they’re built for the Olympics and then they stand rather unused.”

Mansson conducted a three-year study that looked at the pros and cons of using ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene for the surface of a bobsled track. Under a light mist of water, the plastic almost mimics the friction created by the stainless-steel runners of bobsleds and luge sleds on ice.

“When a sled passes, it makes a microgroove, but then the polymer heals very quickly,” explains Mansson.

The low-friction, low-wear plastic is currently used in a wide variety of applications, such as allowing easier movement in artificial hip joints. It’s also used as the bottom layer of racing skis and as a coating on the buckets in earth-moving equipment (the slippery surface enables dirt, sand and gravel to slide off easily).

According to Mansson, bobsledding is an ideal candidate for polyethylene, because it requires a less direct feel for the surface compared to other Olympic sports such as curling, ice hockey or speedskating.

Traditionally, bobsled tracks are carved into the natural environment and require extensive energy for cooling systems. They’re also usually constructed in remote areas that aren’t always spectator-friendly.

Mansson says plastic tracks could be separated into 22 moveable modules that would enable them to be easily set up much closer to cities.

“The new plastic tracks would cut back on environmental impacts by as much as 70 percent,” claims Mansson. “[That’s because] most of the impact of a conventional ice track is caused by a combination of cooling system elimination and spectators traveling to and from the location.”

Mansson plans to develop his idea under a newly created Sport Consortium at Purdue that aims to take sports beyond current boundaries through the implementation of cutting-edge material and manufacturing technologies.