The race for Earth’s sustainability – survivability? – is heating up in more ways than one as greater urgency to reverse the seeming effects of fossil fuel use, combined with advances in technology and innovation, take stronger hold. And roads are being targetted.
The transport industry has often been at the centre of discussion around pollution and energy efficiency. While the production of environmentally friendly vehicles has been the main focus for many years, attention has also been turning to the roads we travel on, which makes sense given that there are an estimated 40 million kilometres of roads around the world – enough to cover the circumference of the Earth a thousand times.
Until such time as we’ll all be hovering above ground Jetsons-style, there have been attempts to look beyond the traditional surfaces beneath our wheels. So what will be the road of the future? Here we look at four concepts to innovate our roads in recent years.
1. PLASTIC ROADS
Put simply, using this method, plastic waste is recycled into road material.
There are a number of private companies exploring this option. British company MacRebur is a proponent of reusing waste, claiming its products are made from 100 per cent recycled plastic materials. The process involves melting plastic pellets (broken down from waste products) into bitumen.
Dutch-based construction firm VolkerWessels wants to recycle plastic from oceans into an aggregate that can be moulded into pre-fabricated “bricks”. It says it would create “hollow” roads, allowing infrastructure (pipes, cables etc.) to run through the roads “like tunnels”, avoiding deep excavations. Similarly, the use of ‘polymerised bitumen’ on a small scale in India has also gained media attention.
Pros: The equation is simple: recycle waste, reduce landfill. Plus, as the recycled component replaces part of the bitumen in asphalt, is also reduces fossil fuel use in production.
Cons: We’re still dealing with plastics, after all, rather than erasing them. One of the doubts raised surrounds erosion and plastic microfibers causing pollution anyway. And the science behind the conversion isn’t actually made clear. For example, Macrebur co-founder Toby McCartney told the BBC: “We will never tell anyone what is actually in our mix.” Eleven secret herbs and spices, anyone?
2. ELECTRIFIED ROADS
“Dynamic charging”, which is different to – but complements – the use of electric charging posts, allows vehicles to charge as they travel. This can be done in two ways: inductive or conductive transmission.
Inductive transmission sees conductors set into the road to create an electromagnetic field: essentially wireless charging. Conductive technology enables electricity to be supplied in two ways: contact from overhead lines, or via conductors in the road.
Swedish company eRoadArlanda is making waves in the media recently, opting for the latter technology in its trials, placing electric rail in the road to magnetically link with a movable arm attached under a vehicle (think toy slot cars).
Pros: The cost of electrification is lower than the cost for vehicle fuel, it’s claimed. This is also a positive because it encourages the transition away from fossil fuels. Says eRoadArlanda: “… electrified roads by 2030 … would reduce energy consumption by approximately 10 TWh, corresponding to three million tons of fuel.”
Cons: Writing in The Conversation, Professor of Energy Systems at De Montfort University, Rick Greenough, questions the “practicality” of this particular solution, preferring long-range batteries and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as better ways of improving sustainability more incrementally: “The cost of the technology and the disruption that building it causes is likely to restrict any mass scale replication. If this solution cannot be widely replicated then it is really no solution at all.”
3. SOLAR ROADS
This is like solar panels on household roofs … but embedded in roads. The panels have been covered in a “silicon-based resin” that allows them to withstand the weight of vehicles. They would then power street lights (and more).
Some companies such as Solar Roadways in the USA and Colas in France have conducted trials, while a bike trail in Holland and a stretch of road in China have also been trialled.
Pros: A promotion of renewable energy and another way of harnessing the energy of the biggest star in our solar system.
Cons: The flat panels covered in resin are less effective at harnessing the sun than the angled panels on household roofs, it’s claimed. And they’re also much more expensive than traditional panels. So much so that the one-kilometre ‘Wattway’ Colas project cost 5 million Euro. The solar technology (much like most ambitious future-sustainability projects) struggles to justify the immediate Return on Investment (ROI) propositions.
4. PIEZOELECTRIC ROADS
This basically involves harnessing energy through vibration. Simples! Piezoelectric crystals can be embedded underneath a road’s asphalt to utilise the energy created by vehicle motion. As the vehicles move over the asphalt layer, the wheels exert force/pressure into the crystals which absorb it and convert it into power, or something along those lines, to be stored in batteries.
Pros: This technology recovers energy that otherwise would go to waste. And the energy can then be dispersed when required.
Cons: Again, it’s a case of ‘show me the money!’ According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers: “Installing generating devices and keeping them running would add to the costs of road maintenance”. Technology like this, especially if the vibrations are stronger to increase the energy harvested, would also contribute to the roads crumbling easier – not great for heavy vehicles.
OTHER INNOVATIONS – FROM USEFUL TO NOVELTY
Auto-dimming lights: Cool, but potentially a bit creepy. Street lights stay off until sensors detect motion. Lights then activate as you drive along. Norwegian company Comlight says it developed the world’s first patented system of this kind, which is said to reduce energy consumption by 35 per cent compared to if lights are needlessly on all the time.
Wi-Fi lights: Another innovation around street lights: turn them into public Wi-Fi hotspots! Pretty self-explanatory, it was an idea pondered by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as recently as March this year. And as long as nothing drops out mid-streaming your favourite show or music video then that’d be no bad thing.
Musical highway: Near the Dutch village of Jelsum, the highway had rumble strips installed which prompted a rendition of the region’s anthem as vehicles drove past. Maybe amusing for drivers, but certainly a dose of noise pollution for locals. Maybe if they played Van Halen’s discography instead they might have something.