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Can a road be good for the environment?

Fri, 21st Aug 2015

Amy Goodfellow

A project to design the world’s first totally environmentally friendly highway is Innovia Tech roadnow underway. 

The Mission Zero Corridor Project was set up to turn a 16 mile stretch of highway in West Georgia into a totally carbon-neutral and sustainable ‘travel corridor’. 

The project itself was inspired by Ray C Anderson, the late CEO of a US carpet manufacturing company called Interface. Ray decided to change the philosophy of his company and reduce its carbon footprint to zero by 2020.

Ray’s idea was that it is possible to have a completely functional and profit-making company, while at the same time, causing no damage to the environment. 

This is the initiative that has inspired the Mission Zero Corridor Project, which is being carried out by the Cambridge-based innovation consultancy company, Innovia Technology. 

Roads and travel are not known for being good for the environment in any way. Each year, we spend huge amounts of money in building and repairing roads, resulting in both economic and environmental costs. Transport itself accounted for 31% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the USA in 2013, so sustainable roads would be a huge step on the way to combating our current global warming problem.

Andy Milton, from Innovia Tech. defines sustainability as having “zero impact on people, wildlife and the planet”. The long term goal of the project is “zero”, says Milton. That means “zero vehicle emissions, closed loop recycling of the road materials, zero accidents, zero pollution, zero water run-off, zero toxins…zero everything”. 

The project itself is a long term one, and Innovia are at the start. Currently, it is all about coming up with new ideas and developing them in a way that makes them doable. The overall project itself is thought to take 20-40 years until completion.

However, there are short term plans which are closer to being realised. Probably one of the most obvious ideas is the use of electric vehicles, and a solar-powered electric charging point for vehicles has already been installed on the highway. 

Another short term idea is to combat the use of under-inflated tyres. According to Milton, 71% of drivers in the EU drive on under-inflated tyres. This causes environmental problems, by increasing emissions, but also safety problems. Innovia’s idea is to use pressure pads on the road to immediately measure tyre pressure and warn drivers to pump them up. Free air will be available along the highway to facilitate this. 

Roads such as this one, especially in the US, have a large area of land which most of the time is not used for anything. The project aims to use this land to generate renewable energy by growing biofuels, installing solar panels, or even using algae to harvest energy from the sun.

Innovia also has many ideas for reducing the carbon footprint of the road itself. One of the simpler solutions would be to use recycled aggregates in the asphalt road surface. A more unusual idea is in the incorporation of metal fibres into the road surface to enable cracks to be healed. By driving over the road surface with a special truck containing an induction heater, the fibres heat up and cause cracks to be re-closed. This would cause considerable economic and environmental improvements by reducing road repair and replacement. Another suggestion is to sequester carbon into the concrete – that is taking it out of the environment and storing it in the concrete to combat global warming. 

Safety is an important concern for this project, and ‘smart roads’ may be able to help here. Cameras could be used to discover drunk-drivers or predict accidents, while emergency drones are on the look-out for trouble. Even methods of facilitating car sharing, and better use of variable speed limits would drop the environmental impact of this highway.

This is, however, a long term project and we are only at the start. But as Milton says “if this project does truly manage to demonstrate a sustainable highway, there will be a lot to learn”. 

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