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Roads of the Future--Idaho Inventor Envisions Solar-Powered Roads With No Ice

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On: Wed, Jan 26, 2011 at 6:10PM | By: Chris Weiss

Roads of the Future--Idaho Inventor Envisions Solar-Powered Roads With No Ice

Having lived in the Rocky Mountains for about five years, I've often daydreamed about a smarter type of road. The road crews here are generally quite adept at clearing things quickly, but there is always the chance for snow build-up and icy patches. There's only so much you can do to keep the roads clear, dry, and safe and, as is the case throughout the rest of life, Mother Nature really has the last say.

But what if we could make a road that snow and ice don't stick to? It doesn't seem that hard to imagine some type of heated road surface that simply doesn't allow for freezing or snow build-up. An Idaho start-up called Solar Roadways has just such a plan.

Under the guidance of CEO Scott Brusaw, Solar Roadways has developed structurally engineered glass panels that could be used to create roads of the future. While glass doesn't exactly sound safe to drive on, Solar Roadways maintains that it is as strong as steel. It also presumably has traction comparable to that of asphalt.

The glass panels offer a number of benefits over asphalt, not the least of which is the ability to capture solar energy through embedded solar panels and power up heating elements to prevent icing and snow accumulation. The heating system would work similar to that on the rear window of a car.

In addition to solar panels, the roads would have LED lights embedded for designating lines.

While this type of roadway would have an immediate draw to mountain highways and heavy snow areas where snow and ice are a problem, there are other benefits as well. In creating roads out of glass panels, Solar Roadways would eliminate the need for asphalt and the requisite reliance on petroleum that goes into creating asphalt. With the future of oil reserves uncertain, this would be a major benefit to all road work.

And even though estimates put cost as high as $4.4 million per mile, Brusaw believes that the road would pay for itself over time in lower maintenance costs. Of course, it's not clear how long it would take for the expensive road to pay off.

It's difficult to compare Brusaw's estimate with the costs of asphalt road without knowing the specific type of road and location. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association outlines the cost of road-building at anywhere between $2 and $12 million per mile depending upon the size of the road (2-lane, 4-lane, 6-lane) and whether it's in an urban or rural area. Assuming that Brusaw is giving the rosiest possible numbers (i.e. the lowest), we can compare it to the $2 and $3 million per mile that it costs to build undivided, 2-lane, rural roads out of asphalt. So the glass panel roads would approximately double building costs.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has at least some hope that Solar Roadways' project will create some harvestable fruit. It funded the project as a means of searching for an alternative to asphalt-based roads.

Solar Roadways is on the second phase of development and plans to use the glass panels for paving the roadways around its headquarters in Idaho.


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