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Wheelchair athletes will put PCM cooling vest to the test in Rio

Ben Welter - Monday, August 29, 2016

Canada's wheelchair rugby player with cooling vest

Canada's wheelchair rugby athletes will keep their cool at the Paralympic Games in Brazil next month, thanks to a PCM-powered cooling vest developed by two recent graduates of Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia.

Jaymes Williams and Laura Hutchison designed the vest to address a problem faced by many athletes with spinal cord injuries: regulating body temperature. Quadriplegics have limited ability to sweat and are prone to overheating during rigorous physical activity. And wheelchair rugby is perhaps the most physically demanding sport in the Paralympics. Players race their wheelchairs up and down a court, working together to advance a ball – or prevent it from being advanced – over a goal line. Violent collisions are common in the sport, which was originally called "murderball." The action is fast, the competition intense. In short: It gets hot out there. 

Williams began working on the vest in 2014 as part of a design engagement course at KPU. He met with wheelchair rugby athletes and found they typically use cold drinks, misters and wet towels to cool down during breaks in the action. The athletes had tried various cooling vests and found them lacking.

After meeting with experts at the Canadian Sports Institute, Williams began work on a cooling vest designed to meet the needs of wheelchair athletes. He teamed up with Hutchison to refine the concept. The pair traveled to Toronto to observe the Canadian team in action at the 2015 Parapan Am Games. They traveled to Hanoi to work with Maxport JSC, a Vietnamese company that develops products for Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Lululemon and other makers of sports apparel. Maxport provided assistance in exploring PCM containment options.

Closeup of wheelchair rugby cooling vest (Photo courtesy of CBC)In April, the Canadian Sports Institute asked Williams and Hutchison to produce a set of eight cooling vests in time for the Rio Paralympics. Final touches are being applied to the vests this month. The Canadian team, ranked fourth in the world, will begin the hunt for gold on Sept. 14, facing off against the host nation, Brazil.

The athletic-looking vest weighs about 2.5 kilograms. It has a coated taffeta shell, poly-cotton lining, hook-and-loop closures and phase change material contained in polyurethane film. The biobased PCM, PureTemp 12, is made by Entropy Solutions. The PCM has a peak melting point of 12° C (54° F), a temperature ideal for absorbing excess body heat without causing discomfort or muscle cramps.

Fully charged vests provide about two hours of cooling relief to athletes, who wear them during warmups and on the sidelines.

What's next for the vest?

"We've already had interest from people around North America inquiring about our vest, which is very exciting," Williams says. "This outreach is telling us that there is a need for cooling strategies that are inclusive for all peoples, with or without disabilities. Our goal for the near future is to continue the cooling vest research project and to began looking into more therapeutic applications. We feel that we can make a product that everyone can wear."

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