Expensive, high maintenance concrete roads and car parks may soon become a thing of the past. New technological developments could see major highways and other concrete areas transformed into transparent material capable of absorbing the sun's rays, generating energy for electric vehicles and the community.
Could LEDs be added to improve night time visibility and even heating elements to help melt snow and ice in cold climates?
These are questions the Solar Roadways project attempted to answer under a 2009 Federal Highways Administration contract. They now intend to build a prototype road surface.
After promising test results, the Solar Roadways project successfully obtained a two-year Phase II contract that included $750,000 of funding towards the building of a prototype, a specially developed parking lot in Idaho, which is expected to be unveiled in the spring.
While the Federal Highway Administration were not prepared to allow the project out on to the public highway right away, they were happy to observe the result of the parking lot test. The test will provide a controlled environment to test the technology.
There are natural concerns over the safety of the new solar material. The strength of the toughened glass used in the panels can be approximated to somewhere between steel and stainless steel. The surface is specially designed to increase friction and increase tyre grip while dispersing standing water. Unlike their concrete counterparts, the solar road panels do not collect a build up of dirt and grease, and are easier and quicker to repair and replace.
The road surface is comprised of three separate layers. The first is a transparent surface layer that provides excellent traction and can easily cope with the strain of heavy freight loads and extreme weather conditions.
The second layer would contain advanced electronics that control the LED and heating systems, communications systems and computerized safety signs. The final layer captures solar energy to power these systems and efficiently dispenses surplus energy to homes and business premises in the local area, which will be connected to the roadway.
There is some skepticism over the financial cost of such as system. The estimate that glass road surface capable of serving the fast lane of a busy highway will initially cost between fifteen and twenty five million dollars over three to five years.
The most obvious obstacle standing in the way of the Solar Roadways project is the glass surface itself, which has yet to be invented. A sophisticated energy storage and retrieval system would also have to be implemented nationwide. In time, such a system could replace conventional power stations and national energy grids.
If successful, Solar Roadways would be one of the most innovative and forward thinking technologies of the century, and it may become a reality sooner than you think.