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Infrastructure innovation: how can our roads be greener?

There are many global challenges driving infrastructure innovation today:
 
  • Population growth is putting pressure on housing, transport and social infrastructure.
  • The supply of safe, reliable and affordable water remains a critical challenge.
  • A growing appetite for data and connectivity is stretching telecommunications infrastructure. 
  • And the quest for more sustainable and renewable energy sources continues…
 
Here we take a look at three interesting examples of infrastructure innovation currently focused on improving the sustainability and performance of our roads.
 
1. Can roads generate their own energy?
 
Vast road networks around the world may present an opportunity for sourcing renewable energy – technology that isn’t as futuristic as it sounds, with global materials innovation focused on designing energy sourcing road surfaces to power streetlights, signage, local infrastructure and more. Here’s how:  
 
Solar roads
 
Placing photovoltaic modules directly onto the surface of pathways and roads could soon allow these surfaces to harvest energy from the sun. A paved section of the infamous Route 66 in the US is currently trialling this technology, using modular paving tiles embedded with solar cells. These tiled surfaces are then covered with specially formulated tempered glass, making them strong enough to walk or drive over. 
 
Some other highly innovative opportunities for solar road technology include: 

•           Microprocessors for intelligent communication with future generations of smart cars; 
•           LED lights for customisable road lines and signage; and
•           Heating elements for melting snow and ice.
 
Kinetic energy
 
The vibration caused by cars travelling along roads presents another exciting renewables opportunity. 
 
Piezoelectricity is an electrical charge that accumulates when mechanical forces are applied to certain solid materials. By placing a layer of piezoelectric crystals beneath the asphalt surface in roads, it allows the weight of passing cars to impact these crystals and generate electricity. Trials are currently underway in both the United States and the United Kingdom to determine the performance and viability of this innovation. 
 
2. Can roads help to solve the global plastic problem? 
 
In the UK, an asphalt enhancement company is currently constructing polymer-based roads by replacing some of the road bitumen with recycled plastic. Trials have shown this innovative use of plastic can improve road durability, reduce the likelihood of cracking and possibly create a road surface that improves the fuel efficiency and performance of cars. 
 
Similar infrastructure innovation is being driven by a Dutch construction firm with plans to use discarded plastics from coastal areas to produce prefabricated roadway modules. These modules – currently being trialled in cycle paths – are lightweight, easy to install, durable, and feature hollow interiors for electrical and telecommunications cables and drainpipes.
 
3. Can concrete be greener?
 

A world-first green concrete trial is underway in NSW as part of an industry push to improve the environmental performance of roads.
 
On a high traffic section of road leading out to Sydney Airport, the performance of traditional concrete is being compared with a similar stretch of geopolymer concrete. This particular blend uses recycled materials including industrial by-products from coal-fired power stations, and co-products from the steel industry. It is hoped that the findings will promote the use of more sustainable concrete in future construction.
 
How can innovation improve the sustainability of your infrastructure projects? Are sustainable materials a viable option for your business? Please share your thoughts and feedback via LinkedIn. 
 

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