Thursday, 12 June 2014

Imagine a world where the roads are “smart.” Suppose that these roads produced energy in amounts that quickly cover the cost of installing them. The roads ahead of you are marked not by paint, but by LEDs. This is the future that Solar Roadways proposes.

The ambitious husband-and-wife duo conceptualized the idea and founded Solar Roadways Incorporated in 2006, receiving a $100,000 grant from the Department of Transportation in 2009. Using the grant, the company built a parking lot covered in hexagonal glass solar panels, complete with LEDs to display messages and heating to prevent buildup of snow and ice. The panels are capable of withstanding loads of up to 110,000 kg.

In April, the company launched a crowd funding campaign on internet crowdfunding site Indiegogo. With support from celebrities including George Takei, the project has raised over $2,000,000 to continue developing the technology. The site states the companies aims of cutting greenhouse gasses by 75% and optimizing the price of the solar panels so that it would cost $40 million to cover a mile of roadways.

The idea behind the project is as follows. Many miles of the US are covered in roads, so why isn't the space being utilized? Converting all of the roads in the US into solar roadways would drastically reduce the countries requirements on fossil fuels. And that's just the start of the environmental benefits Solar Roadways could provide. The panels are designed to be recyclable, as well as using as much recycled materials as possible in production. Additionally, as they are a modular system, they remove the need to replace damage roadways as damaged solar panels can simply be removed and reinstalled or replaced.

Another important feature of the roadways is the "cable corridor." At the edge of a Solar Roadway is a channel with space for electric cables, water pipes, fibre optic cables, telephone wires and more, removing the need for unsightly overhead cable systems. As 50% of the US's water pollution comes from storm water, the piping could help to reduce river pollution and transfer the storm water to treatment plants or other locations other than waterways.

The roadways would also make driving a whole lot easier. As the solar panels use some of the generated energy to heat themselves, they will not be subject to the issues that ice and snow cause on our current roads. Bicycles will be available for use year round, icy conditions will not cause traffic problems, and it will be safer for pedestrians.

Furthermore, the LEDs that cover the surface of the panels are designed to be reprogrammable, eliminating the need for costly repainting jobs. Need to repaint a parking lot to add disabled parking spaces? Reprogram the LEDs to any configuration needed. Imagine walking onto a solar sports field and choosing the pitch you need, from tennis court to football field. The panels are also pressure sensitive. This will improve driver safety; the roads could display warnings about debris on the road, or detect animals moving across.

Personally, I see Solar Roadways as the most promising and practical display of ecological energy production I have seen. The idea combines renewable energy, practicality, and general wow factor in a spectacular way. I give all my support to the company and hope that they achieve great things.

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