DOHA—When Qatar won the bid to host soccer’s 2022 World Cup, the decision was heavily criticized, provoking debate on the state of human rights in the small Gulf country and the suitability of its climate to host the world’s most popular sports competition.
However, as controversy continued, researchers saw in the event a chance for innovation.
“This is the first time the World Cup will be played in an Arab country,” said Dr. Khaled Saud, associate professor of physics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. “Upon hearing the news, I immediately wanted to show the world that we can produce cutting-edge technology that will improve the experience of the World Cup.”
Saud designed a polystyrene material that incorporates silica aerogel and other plastic materials to transform styrofoam from a flammable material into a fire-resistant coating. The new coating can withstand 45 minutes of heat: regular styrofoam, which is widely used in buildings in Qatar, is usually the first material to burn in a fire.
Saud’s idea won the Challenge 22 award, a contest introduced by the organizing body of the Qatar 2022 World Cup, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, in collaboration with Silatech and the Qatar National Research Fund. The contest invited solutions to challenges related to hosting major sporting events.
Another winner of the first round of Challenge 22 is Theiab al-Dossary, a patent marketing specialist at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in the United Arab Emirates. He developed a tactile communication device worn in the palm of the hand that helps visually impaired people navigate while in motion. The device receives information from a smartphone camera using a Bluetooth connection. It then uses nine digitally moveable pins on the pad to transmit Braille messages to the user.
“The visually impaired rely heavily on their hearing. I wanted to find a way to communicate information to them other than through headphones, and in a way that doesn’t restrict their movement,” al-Dossary said.
Drawing inspiration from the World Cup, al-Dossary hopes to develop his product to provide a real-time soccer-watching experience for the visually impaired, but that idea is a work in progress.
Mentoring advice on market analysis that al-Dossary received from Challenge 22 pushed him to shift his focus to adapting his idea to the virtual-reality market. “Turning my product into something that could be profitable would provide me with the financing to develop a better product for the visually impaired, which is the group it was really designed to help,” he said.
The second round of Challenge 22, launched in September 2016, saw similarly creative submissions, such as a smart jersey that could prevent sudden cardiac arrest on the field; a palm tree fiber composite material for stadium seating; a smart photovoltaic wind hybrid renewable energy system; and a wearable dehydration detection and alert system to monitor workers’ health.
Much of the debate surrounding the 2022 World Cup was related to the living and working conditions of construction workers. Responding to the harsh weather conditions workers endure on site, a researcher at Qatar University embarked on a project to develop a cooled helmet that can decrease the body temperature of workers by 10 degrees. Dr. Saud Abdul-Aziz Abdul-Ghani, a professor at the college of engineering, headed a group of researchers and students who developed the helmet, which enhances the traditional process of perspiration to cool the body. A solar-powered fan is used to draw air into the helmet to allow for faster evaporation, and a phase-changing material that melts into a liquid at 22 degrees Celsius (about 72 degrees Fahrenheit) is embedded in the helmet to prolong the thermal comfort period. The material cools the helmet by absorbing heat in order to change from solid to liquid state.
“After the bid, an influx of laborers came to Qatar to work on World Cup projects. It’s important to provide a suitable environment for them to perform their work safely and comfortably,” said Abdullah al-Ibrahimi, a Qatari mechanical engineering student who worked on the helmet project.
The helmet is currently in production stage and is expected to be used by workers on World Cup construction sites this summer.
The field of World-Cup-related innovation extends beyond technical devices and new materials. A 60,000-square-meter research facility was established to design the best turf for 2022 soccer pitches. The facility tests the performance of 24 types of grass under different watering, fertilization and shading conditions.
The senior landscape and sport turf manager at the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Yasser al-Mulla, said that finding the perfect turf for Qatar’s World Cup stadiums is not an easy job, as the stadiums are mostly shaded and air-conditioned. That’s why he needs to test turf performance in different levels of shading. “We are developing a new kind of turf, with new and reliable qualities that we can grow under any condition,” he says.
Al-Mulla said that after the 2022 World Cup, the new turf can be used in public parks or stadiums in countries with similar climates. For him and others, the World Cup has evolved from an international sports event to an innovation challenge.
They hope to build a legacy that continues well after the last whistle is blown.