Every time you go out, whether to work, school, or play, you probably use some form of wheeled transportation on the road. Roads go everywhere you want to go, but aside from providing a relatively flat surface to ride on, they do little else. Here is where technology enters the picture. First let’s take the analogy of smartphones. Ten years ago a flip phone seemed like the greatest invention, but when compared with the mobile options today, it is easy to joke that flip phones are in fact “dumbphones.”
Likewise, a new technology is now being talked about that could revolutionize our roadways. Current materials used for constructing roads are not able take advantage of the sun’s gift of solar energy. But there is great potential for harnessing this energy source now that the technology is available. This technology for creating “smartroads” is called Solar Roadways and is an idea that is just now coming to fruition, having raised a startup fund of over $2 million USD through crowd funding. The idea is to replace current asphalt road coverings with energy-generating solar panels, but let’s first give a breakdown of what the Solar Roadway actually is.
Each of Solar Roadway’s hexagonal section is part of a modular paving system, much like brick pavers, only far smarter. Each panel is about 4 ft2 (0.4 m2) and is a laminate of recycled glass, solar panels, LEDs (light-emitting diodes), heating elements, pressure sensors, as well as electronic and electrical components. The hexagonal base-shape, along with half- and quarter-hexagon shapes, easily interlocks to go straight, around curves, and up and down hills.
Made of tempered glass, the panels themselves can safely handle even the heaviest tractor trailers, some of which weigh up to 125 tons (113.4 tonnes). Traction on the surface is just as good as, or even better than, typical asphalt or concrete road surfaces. A car going 80 mph (130 km/h) in the rain can stop on the Solar Roadways surface just as safely as an asphalt surface. The pedestrian and parking lot version is smoother, but is still effective up to 40 mph (65 km/h) in the same wet conditions.
Turning an ordinary “dumbroad” into a “smartroad” with Solar Roadway has numerous benefits, one of which is recycling glass, about 1,600 lb (726 kg) of which goes into a 144 ft2 (13.4 m2) section of Solar Roadway. Conversely, asphalt and concrete are not recyclable at all.
The LEDs would most likely default to displaying lane divisions or parking lot sections, depending on application, providing excellent visibility both day and night. With computer controls, however, one could dynamically change the display, instantly turning a parking lot into an impromptu football pitch. An accident farther up the road, which might require diverting or delaying traffic, could dynamically be displayed in the roadway itself, providing changes in lane markings to merge traffic or tell drivers to slow down. Another interesting feature is the panel’s pressure sensors, which could trigger the LEDs to light up the section when it detects the weight of an animal or pedestrian, increasing visibility to help reduce accidents.
The panel’s heating element can keep each section free of ice and snow in cold climates. Because of this, Solar Roadways would be immune to frost heave and potholes, and foul-weather accidents would be reduced significantly. In case of breakage, the tempered glass would break into innumerable harmless chunks, unlike typical glass does. Additionally, replacement is as simple as removing four bolts and an electrical connector.
Because Solar Roadways is an entire system, it includes water runoff collection and even utility passages, eliminating traditional overhead power, cable, and telephone lines. This frees up the view, eliminates the possibility of an accident by hitting a utility pole, and even makes access far easier for repair crews.
Solar Power Benefits
Of course, the best must be saved for last. Solar Roadways embeds solar panels that absorb sunlight, generating clean renewable electricity, only a little of which is required to power the roadway itself, such as its LEDs and heating elements. The rest of the energy is collected and injected into the local power grid. But how much power can Solar Roadways produce?
Consider that the average highway in the United States is about 24 ft (7.3 m) wide, and there are some 2.7 million miles (4.3 million km) of paved highways, not including parking lots and private driveways, which could also benefit from the technology. According to some initial calculations by the company, approximately 76,700 mi2 (199,000 km2) of Solar Roadways in the United States would produce over 12,000 TWh/yr (terawatt-hours per year) or three time more energy than the country currently consumes.
What if we take these numbers and apply them to another country, South Africa, for example? South Africa currently consumes nearly 1,600 TWh energy, 90 percent of which is produced from fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas. This, in conjunction with the transportation system, pumps some 480.5 million tons (435.9 million tonnes) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, not to mention tens of millions of tons of soot, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants. There are also 39,000 miles (63,000 km) of paved roads, which if converted to Solar Roadways, could generate at least 177 TWh/yr, providing clean energy for thousands of people.
Solar Roadway’s Future
Solar Roadways may be in its infancy, but the technology looks promising on many levels. Some research indicates that by 2030, the world’s energy needs could be met by just 192,000 mi2 (497,000 km2), or just 0.3% of land surface area, in solar panels. There are some 11.2 million miles (18 million km) of roads on the planet, which could possibly translate to 1.6 billion mi2 (4.1 billion km2) of surface area, far beyond what would be needed to power the planet with 100-percent Solar Roadways!
Images © Solar Roadways