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Synthetic ice is a solid polymer material designed for skating using normal metal-bladed ice skates. Rinks are constructed by interlocking panels. Synthetic ice is sometimes called artificial ice, but that term is ambiguous, as it is also used to mean the mechanically frozen skating surface created by freezing water with refrigeration equipment.
The first known application of plastics as a substitute for ice for the purpose of ice skating was in the 1960s using materials such as polyoxymethylene plastic which was developed by DuPont in the early 1950s. The polymers used at the time had some significant shortcomings. The most obvious being that skaters could not glide on these surfaces as they can on real ice without the regular application of a silicone compound. The compound would build up on the surface, collecting dirt and grime.
In 1982, High Density Plastics launched the first full-size synthetic skating floor under the trade name of Hi Den Ice. The surface was made of interlocking panels of high density polyethylene which became an ice rink when sprayed with a gliding fluid. The surface needed to be cleaned off and resprayed once a month. In a dry form, the panels were also usable for other indoor sports.
Research and development in the field of synthetic ice has improved its skating characteristics. Special polymer materials have been specifically engineered for skating and unique lubricants designed to work with the polymer and be absorbed by it so that the surface is less sticky and does not attract contaminants while providing an ice-like glide. Smoothness between panels at seams has been improved by improvements in production and assembly methods. It is estimated that synthetic ice has 90% of the glide factor of natural ice.
One of the most recent advancements in the synthetic ice world comes in the form of ice skates specifically designed for skating on synthetic ice. The skates (otherwise known as "Agility Blades") are designed to solve two of the main issues associated with skating on plastic: increased friction and rapid wear of the skate-blade edges.
Modern days’ ice skates are designed to deliver maximum speed and agility on the ice. Every element of ice skate design has been and continues to be fine-tuned in order to combine to the level of performance and experience that we have grown to know as “ice skating”. What people often forget is that ice skates were not always the same. In fact, the perfection of ice skate design was an evolutionary process that took many decades if not centuries. While people may never agree on the ultimate birth place of ice hockey, one thing is for sure - ice skate technology has certainly changed a lot since the days when sharpened animal bones were tied to shoes with leather strips in place of skate blades. Over the years, technology evolution affected every element of ice skate design from blade mounting to width, to sharpening profile – all targeting one objective – maximum speed and agility on frozen water. At the same time, ice skate technology also closely followed the evolution of the skating surface itself. As ice rink technology evolved from generally harder outdoor ice to temperature controlled refrigerated ice surface, certain elements of ice skate technology adjusted as well.
Synthetic ice is yet another step in the evolution of skating surface characteristics and with that it is only natural that conventional ice skates are unable to deliver maximum performance in terms of speed, agility or longevity when used on plastic. Agility Blades or synthetic ice skates on the other hand were specifically to enable “real ice skating” on synthetic ice surface. The skates use round steel wheels mounted on a curved or "rockered" frame to approximate an outline of a conventional skate blade. Each wheel is sharpened to have two edges (just like a normal ice hockey blade) thus essentially representing a round ice skate blade. Individually, sharpened wheels eliminate additional synthetic ice friction by replacing gliding with rolling. At the same time, multiple round blades behave just like one solid skate blade in terms of balance, edging, as well as such critical elements of ice skating technique as stops, turns and transitions.
Similarly to conventional skates, Agility Blades must be periodically sharpened. While sharpening frequency strongly varies depending on use and individual preferences, generally speaking synthetic ice skates require similar amount of sharpening after skating on synthetic ice to what conventional skates require when used on regular (ie refrigerated ice).
Comparison with true ice
Skating on natural ice, the skate blade increases the temperature of the microscopic top layers of the ice reducing drag and causing the blade to glide on top of the ice. On synthetic ice rinks, liquid surface enhancements are common among synthetic ice products to further reduce drag on the skate blade over the artificial surface. Although some synthetic ice products allow skating without liquid, liquid is still used to optimize gliding.
- With most synthetic ice products, more effort is required to skate. Although this side effect can be positive for resistance training, skaters report to miss out on the fun of effortless skating. At the same time, frequent training in a high friction environment can also have an unwanted impact on both skating technique as well as sense of passing and shooting timing. Using ice skates and pucks designed to replicate refrigerated ice timing and skating technique on synthetic ice helps to avoid these side effect.
- Synthetic ice surface wears out skates much faster. Most synthetic ice products still wear-down the skate blades very fast, with 30 min - 120 min the industry average.
- Many synthetic rinks produce a large amount of shavings and abrasions - especially if the material is extruded sheet. Sinter pressed material on the other hand uses a much higher molecular weight resin and has a far better abrasion resistance and therefore the shavings are greatly reduced. Although this disadvantage is less on a practical level than on an aesthetic level, surfaces have to be cleaned more regularly with an extruded product and the attractiveness of the rink can be reduced significantly.
- Temporary markings for hockey or other sports wear off. Only permanently embedded markings do not scratch off.
A typical synthetic ice rink will consist of many panels (usually in typical building material sheet sizes) of thin surface material assembled on top of a sturdy, level and smooth sub-floor (anything from concrete to wood or even dirt or grass) to create a large skating area. The connection systems vary. A true commercial joint connection system can be installed virtually on any type of surface whereas the typical "dovetail" joint system requires a near perfect substrate to operate safely.
The most common material used is HDPE (high-density polyethylene), but recently VHMW-PE (very high molecular weight polyethylene) is being used by some manufacturers. This new formula has the lowest coefficient levels of friction at only 10% to 15% greater than real ice.
Synthetic ice rinks are sometimes used where frozen ice surfaces are impractical due to temperatures making natural ice impossible. Synthetic ice rinks are also used as an alternative to artificial ice rinks due to the overall cost, not requiring any refrigeration equipment. For pleasure skating, rinks have been installed indoors at resorts and entertainment venues while newer installations are being made outdoors. For purposes of ice hockey, synthetic ice rinks are typically smaller, at about 50 feet (15 m) by 50 feet (15 m), and are used for specialized training, such as shooting or goalie training.
- The 'Polar Rink' at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
- The 'Winter Garden' arena in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The arena has a conventional ice rink which is closed in the summer, while a 2,600-square-foot (240 m2) synthetic ice rink is used year-round for youth hockey training and public skating.
- The indoor skating rink in Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. This 600-square metre indoor rink is created from very high Molecular Weight Polyethylene and is open to the public 
- Kego Park Iceless Skating Rink in Fukuoka, Japan
- Mawsons Skate, Hobart, Australia.
- "Synthetic Ice Rink Specifications" noiceone.com
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