Monday, March 1, 2010

Solar Roads: The Greatest Pipe Dream Yet

Design Forward Newsletter February 2010, vol. 82

Solar Roads: The Greatest Pipe Dream Yet

Over 5.7 million miles of highway stretch across America alone. The carbon footprint produced by the machinery needed for salting and snow removal of these paved roads is almost immeasurable. With the world's attention focused on the climate crisis industry has shifted toward developments in renewable resources.

The sun, which is an unequivocal provider of all life energy, is now the inspiration behind an ambitious project one small Idaho company hopes will someday be responsible for cutting greenhouse gases in half. The project, which is already in phase I of its development is to create "a series of structurally-engineered solar panels that are driven upon", or solar-roadways', as creators Scott and Julie Brusaw have dubbed them.

The idea is to replace all current petroleum-based asphalt roads, parking lots, and driveways with Solar Road Panels that collect and store solar energy to be used by our homes and businesses. This renewable energy replaces the need for the current fossil fuels used by the generation of electricity. Getting the project off the ground was no easy task and securing funding, even for Phase I of production was a challenge. "Getting the Phase I contract was mainly about physically writing the proposals to get it approved for funding; to prove that these panels were feasible. When I first came up with the idea, my team was invited by the Department of Transportation in Virginia to come out and present for them, and so we did. They were excited about the project and asked a lot of questions, soon after we applied for funding", says co-creator, Scott Brusaw. The funding they received was a $100,000 grant from the Dept of Transportation to build a prototype, "I'm madly ordering parts as fast as I can," says Scott.

As asphalt and tar have never been credited as unparalleled engineering it is easy to understand that solar panel highways will require a level of complexity not yet considered for roadways. The panels are said to consist of three layers. The base will contain power and data lines and is overlaid with the electronics strata that contain solar cells, LEDs and super-capacitors which would produce and store electricity.

The LED's would provide paint' for the highways and be able to communicate messages such as slow' or detour ahead' with the use of lights brought to the surface. The top layer will be made of glass that would provide the same traction as asphalt.

Even more impressive would be their ability to heat up, melting ice from the road, "Our target date to finish Phase I is February 12, 2010. During this demonstration the snow should be falling where we are, allowing us to demonstrate how the panels' heating elements can melt snow or ice. We will videotape everything and put it up on our website."

Though entirely ingenious the project has some obvious flaws, for which solutions are being furiously researched. Solar panels are notoriously fragile and would not be able to withstand the weight of even light vehicles. "We are trying to work on developing a type of glass that would be able to withstand the pressure of trucks and other vehicles driving over it daily. This glass that we're going to be layering over the panels needs to have enough grip and not be slippery, especially in rain or snow. We have partnered with Pennsylvania State University to develop the glass surface for our panels, and they're going to be testing it using 80,000-lb. trucks."

Though the price tag for implanting solar roads throughout the country is estimated at an unworldly $35 trillion, the Brusaw's hope that funding from Phase II of their contract will allow them to start implementing solar panels in parking lots of businesses, and possibly begin mass-producing them shortly after.

The product has received widespread interest globally from countries wanting to build plants. "We're getting requests from all around the world, from countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Czech Republic contacted us just last week about possibly having some of their people visit our site, and once this project here gets off the ground, and we have plants that are mass-producing the panels for the roads, they would like to have some of their employees come over here for 2-3 years and see how everything works, and to gain confidence in getting the project off the ground over there as well."

Sure they will be ploughing the snow from our roads this year, but keep in mind they laughed at the light bulb and said man was never meant to fly.

Jennifer Maclellan is the Senior Writer for the Green Guide Network. You can contact her at


Interview with Scott Brusaw conducted by Danielli Marfori, Creative Intern for the Green Guide Network.

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