For those who loved skating on the local pond or ice rink as a kid, a new synthetic ice technology could soon serve as a new way to revisit childhood. Traditional ice rinks are a rare occurrence due to the high cost of maintenance. Costs can break $40,000 per month for water, combined with the electricity needed for refrigeration.
Let's not even mention the Zamboni; those magical machines that glide majestically over smooth old-school ice to give its surface that fantasy-glean that comes from a fresh, clean new layer of water, freezing to the touch.
But today traditional ice isn't the only way to go. Synthetic ice, made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), or ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMW-PE), is on the rise. UHMW-PE has the lowest coefficient of friction, a mere 10% to 15% greater than real ice. With drag this low, it's hard to tell the difference between synthetic ice, and the real thing.
Traditional ice or hockey skates work well on synthetic ice, and—while several different companies manufacture the surface—three stand out: European-based Glice and Xtraice, and Hauppauge, and New-York-based PolyGlide Ice.
In an interview, PolyGlide Ice owner Jim Loughran told IE that his synthetic ice surface "is made of a polymer that is a high-molecular-weight plastic, and that has low resistance and is scratch resistant." Loughran described the material as "infused with a slip agent, which gives it the same slip as ice."
The goal of any synthetic ice is to have the lowest friction coefficient, or "gliding degree", and to have good grip. The grip is key for many ice skating and hockey maneuvers. Synthetic ice dulls skate blades far faster than traditional ice, and this necessitates more frequent blade sharpening. It may also be a turnoff for those who own expensive skates.
Skating on synthetic ice also creates plastic shavings, or abrasions, that accumulate on skate blades, and may even make their way onto skaters' clothes. Higher molecular weight resins are more resistant to abrasion, and produce fewer shavings.
Most synthetic ice panels are guaranteed for between 8 and 12 years, and the panels can then be reversed for an additional 8 to 12 years. Maintaining the panels is easy, all that is required is that they be pressure-washed once a day then squeegeed dry.
PolyGlide Ice describes its panels as being "dovetailed", while the other companies describe their panels as being "tongue and groove." Both systems eliminate edge problems where the panels come together.
Not ready for the Olympics
Synthetic ice rinks have been part of the training regimen in ice hockey for decades, but according to Loughran, artificial ice "is not sanctioned for regulation play by hockey teams or ice skating competitions due to differences in the resistance in the surface."
However, in an email, Xtraice Rinks Project Manager Randy Scharberg said that their rinks are used by the 2018 Olympic Bronze Medallist Javier Fernandez during television appearances and that Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad purchased one of their rinks for his home.
While you won't see synthetic ice in the Winter Olympics just yet, it is used in training rinks and in public skating and mall rinks. PolyGlide Ice has recently installed a synthetic ice rink at the upscale Westfield Century City mall in Beverly Hills, California.
Synthetic rinks are installed all over the world, including at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the hockey training center at HC Davos, Switzerland, and at what may be the world's largest synthetic ice rink located in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Recently, Glice installed a synthetic ice rink in the Zócalo neighborhood of Mexico City that can accommodate a whopping 1,200 skaters at one time. Mexican officials estimated that they saved 49,000 gallons of water and 95 tons of carbon dioxide by using synthetic ice rather than traditional ice.
According to a recent New York Times article, Glice has installed 1,800 rinks worldwide, with its first install in 2017 at the Detroit Zoo. They've installed a rink on the rooftop of the William Vale hotel in Brooklyn, NY, and they even installed a private rink in the penthouse suite at New York's Upper East Side Mark Hotel. PolyGlide Ice recently entered into an agreement to install synthetic ice rinks at Marriott Hotels.
Even restaurants are getting into the act with the Whiskey Business restaurant in Chicago installing a PolyGlide Ice rink on which patrons can try their hands at the ancient sport of curling.
A perennial favorite at the Winter Olympics, curling involves two teams of four players each who slide heavy, polished granite stones called rocks across the ice. As the rocks slide, their path is influenced by two sweepers who use brooms or brushes to sweep the ice in front of the stone, allowing it to travel farther.
Synthetic ice rinks at home
Synthetic rinks are increasingly showing up in the basements, garages, and backyards of private homes. For about the same price as a pool table, you could be skating at home.
Back in the early 1980s, cooking food in a microwave rather than on a traditional stove was a paradigm shift. In the same way, skating on synthetic ice is a paradigm shift, and only time will tell if it will be fully embraced. If you're nostalgic for old-time ice rinks, you can always install your synthetic rink outside during the winter, and serve hot chocolate.