Artificial grass, synthetic turf, or Astroturf is a synthetic material that resembles grass and is often used as a substitute for grass. Natural grass, as you may already know, requires a lot of sunlight and maintenance to stay healthy – something not possible with indoor playing surfaces. To that end, sports is where artificial grass finds most of its applications.
The artificial turf we know today didn’t always look like it does now. Since its birth back in the early 60s, artificial grass has evolved to become more and more like natural grass. In the paragraphs that follow, we’ll explore this evolution of synthetic turf and what made it so successful an invention.
Where it all began
The origins of faux grass date back to 1966, when a company was trying to come up with alternative playing surfaces for schools. Monsanto Industries, with the help of its subsidiaries, The Chemstrand Company and The Creative Group patented “ChemGrass” in 1964. This synthetic grass was then installed for the first time at a school in Rhode Island. This would be the company’s first installation and the earliest version of artificial turf.
The next commercial opportunity wouldn’t present itself until 1966, when Astrodome (based onThe Colosseum) – the first domed stadium in the U.S., ran into a problem. The grass on the field (a unique breed that was aimed at indoor use) didn’t get enough sunlight to grow. Without it, maintaining a grass playing surface was impossible.
Engineers had built a transparent roof to allow sunlight in but the glass roof produced glare, and to prevent that, the roof was painted, leaving the grass in the dark. When it died, ChemGrass was laid at the Astrodome in 1966, which made it the world’s first stadium with an artificial playing field.
This deal brought ChemGrass fame and its popularity skyrocketed to the point that it was rebranded as ‘AstroTurf’ – in relevance to Astrodome. AstroTurf is used interchangeably with artificial grass, but it is actually a trademark that Monsanto doesn’t own anymore.
The demand grew
More and more, indoor stadiums in North America would follow soon after. An outdoor stadium at Indiana State University also laid synthetic grass back in 1967. Once it had made its way to outdoor sports arenas, synthetic grass started finding domestic applications as well. Today, there are over 11,000 artificial playing fields nationwide at both indoor and outdoor stadiums for baseball and football.
With this revolutionary invention, you could have a great lawn without regular trimming or watering. Even the areas in your yard that don’t receive enough sunlight could be full and green. This prospect had a certain appeal, and in the early 90s, many residential properties also had artificial turf installed.
What made it possible?
Before artificial turf rose to popularity, the idea of tufted carpets had been around for a while, since the eighteenth century, in fact. Tufting allows you to stick synthetic fibers to a backing, and today it’s used for manufacturing most carpets for residential and commercial use. It was tufting that paved the way for the first artificial playing surface – tufts, in this case, were the blades of grass.
Carpets need traction, durability, and cushioning, as does artificial turf. Add to these factors water drainage, and you have the design for a synthetic playing field. All these characteristics – the ability to drain water away from the surface, durability, comfort, and life-like appearance, were perfected over time, which brings us to our next point: the evolution of artificial grass.
The three generations of artificial turf
The first-generation artificial turf didn’t contain any infill, which made it dense. This structure would trap heat, causing discomfort. Traction was another problem. In simple terms, the surface was too slippery. To solve this traction underfoot issue, Monsanto introduced texture to the surface, which gave it a better grip and a more natural appearance (it wasn’t just a green nylon carpet anymore).
Then came the second generation of AstroTurf in the 70s which wasn’t as dense because manufacturers used sand infill to keep the fibers in their place. It was taller too and it allowed heat to escape, which should have made it a much more agreeable playing surface. But in reality, the sand infill made the surface abrasive, which caused skin burns.
In the 90s, the fibers became taller, and the sand infill was replaced with rubber crumb – or granulated rubber tires. With these improvements, the design of artificial turf was made more realistic. Rubber crumb infill offered more comfort and minimized skin abrasions.
Instead of nylon, this generation of artificial grass was made from polyethylene, which doesn’t graze the skin since it’s softer than other raw yarn materials. It’s this generation of artificial turf that you see in sports fields, residential and commercial properties.
Modern Artificial Grass
Today, the innovations we have, let faux grass retain its shape (when it suffers damage from being crushed), allow it to dissipate heat into the atmosphere making the surface cooler, and finally prevent the fibers from reflecting light and causing glare, which makes the surface resemble the natural thing from any angle.
The demand for artificial grass hasn’t stopped growing, but this particular market has faced its share of controversies. For instance, the injuries caused to athletes and sportspersons because of abrasive sand infill and the discomfort from heat retention within the fibers. Even the rubber crumb infill isn’t flawless. When granules come from recycled tires (as is the case mostly), they carry heavy metals which then leech into the water, polluting it.
The third generation of artificial turf is just as tall as real grass, mimics the functionality and behavior of a real playing field, and it doesn’t present a considerable risk of injuries and burns to sportspersons. A caveat though, the traction might feel realistic, but it still isn’t as cool as natural grass.