Infrastructure news: Read this to believe it

Reading several reports -- including from the Arup Group, an engineering design firm based in London -- and listening to various podcasts gave me important background as I wrote the story in this month's B Magazine about the TransAmerica Corridor. But I used only a fraction of what I learned. Some of the most mind-boggling information had to do with new technologies that are being tested to improve pavement and road systems, which you might not believe. For example:

"Growing trees that glow in the dark to serve as lights for highways"

I came across a story about this particular topic on YouTube, featuring Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde, who explains how bioluminescent bacteria found in jellyfish, fireflies and mushrooms can be used to create glow-in-the-dark trees. This technology was also referenced in one of the podcasts I listened to produced by Dan Rozycki, president of The Transtec Group. Some of the comments from speakers he interviewed like Dr. Tyler Ley, a research professor at Oklahoma State University who specializes in concrete, gave me a different perspective on roadways. Ley, who has his own YouTube channel, is also a major proponent of autonomous truck corridors.

Just for fun, let me summarize some of the amazing experiments the TransTec Group, which tags itself as "the world's pavement engineering specialists," reported on in a December 2019 article titled "The Future of Highways." Don't tell me you don't find this absolutely fascinating.

"Dynamic electric vehicle charging: charging cars as they drive"

This section of the report charts how Qualcomm Technologies is experimenting with embedding electric coils in pavement to "send power up to a vehicle traveling across it." Theoretically, it could allow a vehicle to potentially "exit a highway with a battery fuller than when it entered."

While TransTec questions the economical viability for retrofitting existing roads, the technology "could enable electric vehicles to travel farther between charges than ever before, possibly even eliminating the need for large, heavy batteries, further saving cost and weight." A more likely immediate future than highways: "Public transportation, where routes are standardized and vehicles carry more passengers."

"Harvesting clean energy from roadways"

A research team at the University of Texas at San Antonio is working with the Texas Department of Transportation to embed piezoelectric sensors in pavement. When a car passes over the sensor, it creates a voltage, which is converted into electricity. "By lining an entire roadway with these sensors, the vehicular traffic that passes over the road can generate enough power to be pushed back into the grid, stored or even light roads at night." Innowatch, an Israeli company, has already run tests that "point to this technology becoming a viable option in the future."

Other experiments underway include placing pinwheels along roadways to harvest wind energy. "In Dundee, Scotland, there is a wind turbine that spins in the wind of passing traffic," Transtec reports. Created by a Pakistani entrepreneur, the turbines take advantage of the high vehicle traffic and windy geographical location to harvest clean energy.

"Even if the energy generated from these technologies is minimal at first, any amount of energy harvested can help offset the costs of powering these highways at night -- a small, but significant step towards creating renewable highways."

"Glow-in-the-dark, dynamic paint"

The same man behind glow-in-the-dark trees, Daan Roosegaarde, has created photoluminescent paint, which is being tested on a 500-meter section of road in the Netherlands. The paint soaks up energy from the sun during the day and uses that energy to light up at night. Temperature sensitive, the paint is also being tested to change color during poor road conditions. "Drivers would be notified of ice or slick surfaces by warnings on the pavement, allowing them to take measures to avoid crashing or hydroplaning. When the conditions subside, the markings would become transparent, returning the pavement surface to normal."

"Drones overhead that monitor highways and predict maintenance"

The Ohio Department of Transportation, working with Ohio State University, is learning how to use drones "to monitor and send traffic data to ODOT's Traffic Management Center, where measures can be taken to improve traffic flow." In India, drones are being used to analyze roads and predict maintenance, "allowing for preemptive repairs and extending the structure's lifetime and durability." Not in the Transtec report, but in one of the podcasts I listened to: drones that can automatically fill and repair potholes.

Other sections of the report include "Concrete roads that can de-ice themselves," "Making infrastructure more readable for autonomous cars," and "Recycling plastic into pavement."

This last section underlines how one UK-based firm, MacRebur, is on a mission to "help solve the waste plastic epidemic and the poor quality of roads we drive on around the world today." The firm has created an innovative road material from non-recyclable waste plastic and asphalt. According to Transtec: "Numerous roads around the world have been built using this design, and MacRebur claims that their mix is not only eco-friendly but produces longer-lasting results."

Rajagopalan Vasudevan, a chemistry professor in India, says his country has identified the same results with an asphalt mix using finely-shredded plastic waste. "Hundreds of thousands of kilometers of roads" have been constructed with the new material, and he argues they "are more robust than other roads without plastic."

Transtec points out these plastic roads must stand the test of time before they are trusted as road design alternatives. "But if using waste plastics in asphalt is proven to be effective, it could be a significant contribution by the transportation industry towards environmental sustainability."

Who knows what will happen with the TransAmerica corridor, but if it gains local support across the nation and a federal champion to lead the call for funding, it could very well be built as the most eco-friendly, innovative highway in the world. Retrofitting existing highways to some of these new technologies simply wouldn't be feasible. But building new? That's another story. At minimum, it should all be part of the national consideration on how best to build infrastructure for a dynamic future.