Decoding Design

Researchers are seeking stronger, better pavement

Posting in Design

Asphalt is asphalt, right? Not so. And researchers at a California university are searching for the best formulations to build longer lasting, quieter and more fuel-efficient roadways.

As lawmakers duke it out in Washington, D.C., over transportation spending, it's business as usual on roads across the nation. That is to say, they're packed with pothole-producing heavy duty trucks and cars that constantly erode pavement...adding to long lists of fix-it projects amid dwindling road budgets.

But at the Pavement Research Center at the University of California, Davis, work is underway to create longer lasting, quieter roadways that can also help improve vehicular fuel efficiency, reports Quest, a science and environment news program from Northern California's KQED public broadcasting.

Different types of asphalt are tested and abused as part of the center's work. A large structure that resembles a stationary rail car is used to simulate the effect of vehicles -- specifically heavy trucks -- as they drive over asphalt, over and over (and over) again. In fact, the center's John Harvey says that researchers there don't even consider the impact cars will have on pavement, as trucks are the real culprit. The simulator illuminates the structural weakness -- cracks, for example -- that a asphalt sample will form after upwards of 20,000 passes of a weighted truck tire.

The longer a roadway lasts and resists potholes, the further each transportation dollar can be stretched.

Aside from building more strength into asphalt, the researchers are also devising means of absorbing more tire noise. Harvey told KQED: "We’re designing the pavement so the surface is porous and the air can be squeezed out from the tire and actually squeezed down into the pavement and that drops the noise considerably."

Another consideration is the smoothness of the asphalt. The smoother a road is, the less energy a vehicle exerts as its wheels pass over the surface. In other words, smooth roads lead to lower fuel consumption.

Via: Quest

Image: Flickr / Alan Stanton

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure