If you are the kind of guy who reads Design News, we can predict with certainty that nanotechnology will not help you beat Tiger Woods—ever. But it may soon help improve your handicap.
Engineers working on golf equipment see nanotech as a way to fine-tune stiffness, strength, and weight in ways that influence the energy transfer between club and ball as well as the path taken by the ball as it flies down the fairway. Some of these efforts focus on the club itself, but nanotech has also started to turn up in golf balls.
One such design comes from Nanodynamics Inc., whose patented NDMX ball features a large hollow metal core. In the first commercial version of the ball, this core is surrounded by a layer of elastomer and a thermoplastic cover, usually an ionomer. The company has also created two-layer ball designs with just the metal core and plastic cover. "In theory, you could even have a hollow metal sphere be the entire ball," notes Doug DuFaux, a director at Nanodynamics.
Regardless of how many layers, nanotechnology comes into play in the core. Nanodynamics has applied its expertise in thermal and mechanical processing to reduce the grain size of the proprietary metal alloys it uses for the core. DuFaux says these nanostructured metals have grain sizes as small as 50 nm, with the actual size depending on which of several materials the company uses.
Nanodynamics’ first commercial ball will be a three-layer design comprised of a hollow-metal sphere, a layer of elastomer, and a thermoplastic cover. Two-layer balls made up of just the metal and plastic cover may work too.
The upshot of reducing grain size from micron- to nano-scale is improved impact strength. "If you decrease grain size, hardness goes up and you lose ductility," DuFaux says. With golf balls, he continues, that's exactly the point since ductility results in less efficient energy transfer.
Once Nanodynamics engineers had a metal core that could hold up to the impact of the golf club—more than 2,000 lbs on average—they focused on influencing the balls flight. The hollow metal sphere allowed them to craft a ball that carries more of its mass further from its center of rotation, increasing the moment of inertia. The higher MOI, in turn, reduces the ball's spin rate.
By reducing the tendency to spin, a ball's sensitivity to off-axis strikes, which can cause hooks and slices, likewise diminishes, according to DuFaux. In general, he says, each one percent increase in MOI translates to a one percent increase in accuracy, and Nanodynamics has ball designs whose MOI is at least several percent higher than traditional balls.
DuFaux acknowledges that spin reduction is something of a balancing act: you want it low enough to ward off off-axis spin but not so low that the ball won't generate lift. To help preserve lift, Nanodynamics did have to tailor the dimple pattern of its ball to its specific spin characteristics.
So does the new ball deliver on its promises? It's too soon to tell. The first NDMX ball came out just last month. Until you get a crack at one, you may have to improve your game the old fashioned way—by working on your swing at the driving range.