It’s being called snowmageddon – and for good reason. Snow and ice are wreaking havoc all across the United States with record wind chills and more precipitation than Siberia on a bad day. If your commute is taking three times as long as it usually does, go ahead and blame the archaic highway system.
That’s right. In the 1950s, the idea of paving America with black asphalt seemed like a good idea. Now, 60 years later, we’re still using it -- and still sliding all over the road.
But what if the road itself could change?
That’s the dream for Scott Brusaw, who has a novel idea for dealing with snowy roads: replace them with a glass surface embedded with solar cells that generate power form the sun and store it in batteries for use at night. In his view, such a proliferation of solar cells could also help solve our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels, because they could feed excess electric power into the grid. He has even developed illuminated lane markings that change according to current road conditions.
His company, Solar Roadways is waiting for approval on a new $750,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that will help him build a large-scale prototype to test new materials and electronics, and hopefully prove that his invention works.
Most automotive experts agree that something needs to be done to make U.S. highways safer, but some are skeptical about Brusaw’s plan. Thilo Koslowski, a respected automotive expert and vice president at the technology consulting firm Gartner, says that the government really needs to explore more intelligent roadways that provide clues about the conditions of the road and the upcoming traffic conditions.
Automakers are also interested in intelligent highways, since it means sharing the burden for safety with the Federal Highway Administration and not carrying the load themselves.
“The idea of an intelligent highway system has been studied for decades,” says Jeff Holland, a spokesperson for the American Suzuki Motor Corporation. “The benefits include safety from illuminating the roadways, the ability to melt ice and snow, traffic management solutions and accident reduction.”
To this end, IBM has tested roadway sensors that can tell drivers about traffic conditions. At Luleå University of Technology in Sweden, a project called iRoad uses LED lights embedded into the road that can send information about road conditions to drivers.
For Brusaw, the solar road is the ultimate answer because of the environmental benefits, the autonomous elimination of snow and ice and electricity generation.
But getting funding for the project has not been easy. In 2009, Brusaw received an initial Phase One grant from the FHWA for $100,000 to develop a small solar road prototype, which he built in his garage. He has now applied for the $750,000 Phase Two grant. Last fall, he won a design competition run by General Electric and was awarded $50,000.
With an influx of cash, Brusaw plans to build a 432-square-foot parking lot with the solar road panels -- about 12 feet wide by 36 feet long -- outside of his office in Sagle, Idaho. He will monitor the area 24/7 to determine the optimal temperatures to keep snow from accumulating.
“Think of the rear window of your car,” he says. “There would be a heating element [in each cell] similar to that. In the morning, when you go start your car, it pumps out about 15 amps and cranks it up to about 85 degrees to melt whatever snow and ice has accumulated overnight. If you kept the temperature at about 40 degrees you wouldn’t have to do that because it would not accumulate.”
Brusaw has grand intentions, and a side benefit is that the embedded LED lights could also be used for warning messages to drivers. Brusaw says that a study in the United Kingdom found that LED lane markings could improve nighttime visibility by as much as 70%. But his most lofty goal has to do with electrical power generation.
One example: say you decided to pave the road from Minneapolis to Chicago with a solar roadway. Brusaw says the 410 mile distance would require 721,600 solar panels for the four-lane road. That’s enough to generate about 5.5 billion Watt-hours of electricity per day (based on four hours of good sunlight), or enough power to meet the daily needs of about 175,000 homes.
Objections to solar roadways
Still, any major highway infrastructure change would require millions if not billions of dollars in funding, taxpayer involvement, and a massive undertaking to re-build the U.S. highway system.
Koslowski says he likes the idea from a technical standpoint, but says his main objection has to do with the overall expense. He also notes that the maintenance costs for solar raods may be much higher than for traditional asphalt roads – e..g, the construction crews and snow plows that are already in place.
Brusaw says that the solar road would cost about $4.4M per mile, but those costs are offset by not needing to build coal plants, install utility poles, and build relay stations. “The taxpayers are already paying for all of these. When a road needs to be repaved anyway, why not replace the oil-based asphalt and the coal-fired power plant(s) and utility poles with something that serves the same purpose, offers many more safety features, and produces clean renewable energy?” he says.
Meanwhile, the blogging community has not responded well to the solar road concept. Infrastructurist.com called the solar road idea “crazy” and “dubious” while other bloggers questioned some of the engineering. Koslowski says any time you come up with an innovative idea, it has to be supported by a sound cost analysis. He says solar roads would need to be leveraged in a wide area.
Another objection has to do with the glass material used for the roads. Brusaw says there are glass research projects where the material is strong enough to stop a bullet or can even be used as a shield against roadside bombs, so his surface could easily withstand the weight of an 18-wheeler. A textured surface would provide traction on par with blacktop.
“The thicker you make it, the more you laminate it, the stronger it gets,” he says. “The cells will be inside the glass. In our prototype we have the LEDs laying under the glass. We learned we could laminate the LEDs between two pieces. [This makes] the cells more visible to sunlight.”
Brusaw says keeping the roads clean enough for the solar cells to operate would not be a problem. He suggests using a chemical spray, such as titanium dioxide, which would prevent dirt accumulation and even turn oil deposits into a sandy mix.
“Worst case, we can use squeegee trucks to replace snow plows,” he says.
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