In 2023, over 13 million drivers suffered damage to their cars due to potholes on the road. 2.7 million cars were forced off the road – costing the nation’s motorists £1.7 billion in repairs. It’s estimated that the repair bill to mend all those potholes is over £14 billion – and will take years to complete.Embed from Getty Images
So, how can we think smarter about the materials we use for our roads – whilst keeping sustainability in mind? What’s the future for our arch nemesis – the pothole?
Potholes have always been a pesky problem for road users. They’re caused by a number of factors – often it’s just natural wear and tear from the 30 million cars on our roads, not to mention lorries, buses and even bicycles. However, public enemy number one is water!Embed from Getty Images
When water accumulates under the road surface, it weakens the underlying soil and, with the weight of traffic, this can lead to cracks forming. Whilst these might be just hairline cracks, during wintery conditions the water in them can freeze and expand, further stressing the surface. Fortunately, some clever science is coming up with futuristic ways to keep us on the level and hopefully help double the lifespan of a road.
Amazingly limestone-producing bacteria can create a material that patches over cracks all by itself!
It’s a bit like how the bones in our body heal themselves using mineralisation.
The bacteria used is found naturally in highly alkaline lakes near volcanoes and can live in a dormant state for a staggering 200 years without oxygen or food.
They’re placed in tiny biodegradable capsules which is blended with concrete.
When cracks develop in the road surface, water seeps in and breaks down those capsules allowing the bacteria to feed on the calcium lactate present in water to produce limestone which seals up the cracks.
Another way that roads could heal themselves might be through nano technology.
Adding tiny, manufactured nano-particles to asphalts increases its flexibility, making it less likely to crack. It can also help make materials easier to store and have a longer lifeEmbed from Getty Images
2) Road furniture
When a vehicle hits street furniture, things like road signs, bollards, and traffic and street lights, the damage, not to mention the risk to life, can be catastrophic.
An exciting development that can tackle this problem is the use of friable posts which are made from a material that instantly breaks into tiny pieces on impact, meaning the force of the impact is significantly reduced.Embed from Getty Images
3) Warm mix asphalt
Although asphalt itself isn’t warm, the name refers to the way it’s made.
It’s a green product that’s produced at lower temperatures and costs a lot less to make.
Lower temperatures also make it safer for workers in the manufacturing plant and on construction sites and as less energy is needed, it’s better for the environment.Embed from Getty Images
Another innovation that’s literally paving the way to better road surfaces is something called PCP or Precast Concrete Pavements.
It’s not always cost effective or good for the environment to constantly be using new resources to replace and repair road surfaces.
PCPs are made of tough, reinforced and ready made sections which can be easily and quickly installed, which is great to get traffic moving againEmbed from Getty Images
5) Water collecting surfaces
We know that standing water is a leading culprit for damaging road surfaces.
Water collecting surfaces can help tackle this problem.
Using porous asphalt and pervious concrete, they allow water to drain through into a catchment area below.
Here it can be stored and used for local irrigation and can help keep local habitats alive.Embed from Getty Images
Let’s time travel to the year 2050…
Meet BuilderBots – an exciting new development in maintaining our roads! As soon as sensors detect even the tiniest of cracks in a road surface, a squad of BuilderBots is released, swarming around the damaged area and making repairs in minutes. For road users, everything is seamless and safe.
…aaaand we’re back in 2023.
What do you think a BuilderBot would look like? As you can see, there’s loads of science and technology to help us have smoother and more sustainable roads – and keep water away!Embed from Getty Images
You could be part of the change. We want you to use your imagination and think about how you would design new materials and better structures to keep roads in tip top condition.
Tell us your ideas about how YOU would build a better road in the future for your chance to win.