The roads of the future: Future networks could be stronger and less expensive
- May 1, 2020: Vol. 7, Number 5

The roads of the future: Future networks could be stronger and less expensive

by Igor Perepelychnyi

The global road network is one of the largest systems ever built by man. In the United States alone, the total length of roadway exceeds 4.1 million miles — enough to circle the Earth 165 times. While relatively simple to build as compared to other structures, such as skyscrapers or dams, the sheer scale of the global network makes road construction one of the largest sources of material consumption on our planet.

While road types can vary greatly depending on their use, location and construction method, the majority are formed from crushed rock, sand and asphalt in a process that releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere. To curb the environmental impact of road construction, a number of new innovations are being developed.

Replacing some of the finite resources used in road construction with one of humanity’s most notorious waste products — all while extending the lifespan of the roadway itself — makes a lot of sense. In India, the process of melting plastic to fill in potholes has been happening on a small scale for a number of years.

British engineer Toby McCartney recognized the benefit of using plastic in roads while traveling the country and developed a method of turning plastic bottles into small pellets that could be added to an asphalt mix to increase its bulk. McCartney’s solution has created roadways that are 60 percent stronger and last 10 times longer than those built with conventional methods, while also creating the potential to lock-up a considerable amount of waste material that would otherwise end up in landfills or oceans.

Dutch company KWS, together with Wavin and Total, have developed Plastic Road, a prefabricated, modular roadway made from recycled plastic. The product’s anticipated lifespan is three times longer than traditional asphalt roads and is four times lighter and can be constructed 70 percent faster. Plastic Road’s hollow design allows pipelines and cables to be fed through its road deck, rather than having to dig fresh or dedicated trenches. The roads’ hollow conduits can also be used to store or channel excess water during storms.

Another concept, incorporating solar panels directly into road networks, has the potential to turn an otherwise static piece of infrastructure into a major source of renewable energy production. Companies such as Solar Roadways in the United States, Wattway in France and SolaRoad in the Netherlands have all developed prototype systems that are durable enough to withstand traffic loads and the elements. Critics have raised a number of concerns around solar roadways, including the safety of vehicles driving over the toughened glass or silica required to protect the photovoltaic elements, and whether horizontal solar panels can collect sunlight and produce energy as effectively as those positioned diagonally at solar farms or on rooftops.

Given the scale of global road networks, innovative concepts such as these could make a significant difference in terms of cost reduction and durability, and recycling and energy production.


Igor Perepelychnyi is CEO of innovation assets management at Setcoin Group in London.

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