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Baoshan Huang and Nick Zhou hold a slab of electrically conductive asphalt concrete.

Paving the Way for a Sustainable Future

Huang and Zhou to Develop Smart Pavement using Solid Carbon Derived from US Domestic Coal

Imagine a highway system where there wasn’t a need to salt the highways because the pavement would not freeze to begin with. A new type of sustainable pavement under research by Assistant Professor Nick Zhou and Edwin G. Burdette Professor Baoshan Huang aims to do just that and more.

The research was awarded a Phase I cooperative agreement of $430,000 from the US Department of Energy’s (DoE) Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM), and an additional $107,500 from non-DoE funding for a total of $537,500 over 18 months. One of the goals of FECM’s Carbon Ore Processing Program is to support research and development for projects utilizing coal or coal wastes that are outside of traditional thermal and metallurgical markets, like this sustainable pavement concept.

The objective of the research project “Utilizing Coal-Derived Solid Carbon Materials Towards Next-Generation Smart and Multifunction Pavements” aims to develop and demonstrate a novel, multifunctional, smart pavement system that incorporates coal-derived solid carbon materials. The product would integrate de-icing, self-sensing, and microwave-induced self-healing that would provide a cost-effective, efficient, and reliable solution to safety, mobility, and resilience challenges on bridges and roadways in winter weather.

A side by side collage of an electrically conductive asphalt concrete slab and an infrared thermal image of the same slab.

A slab of electrically conductive asphalt concrete for winter auto de-icing and an infrared thermal image showing the heating behavior of the same slab

“We aim to create a pavement product that serves multiple functions at once: providing advanced safety and reliability, while also contributing to the national goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050,” said Zhou. “The DoE’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management support is helping to make this a reality.”

The main ingredient in the aggregate is a low-cost domestic coal-derived solid carbon, which can be used to build and improve asphalt pavements while utilizing coal resources. With the increasing adoption of renewable energy resources, some coal-burning power plants will be phasing out.

This project will provide a promising pathway to rethink the use of the US domestic coal resources by utilizing the low-cost, electrically conductive, and mechanically strong coal-derived solid carbon materials to produce infrastructural components. It does not require any change to existing paving equipment and process and makes it possible to produce multifunctional smart pavements at costs comparable to those of regular pavements.

A smart pavement system will especially benefit and improve bridge deck paving, where freezing issues are eminent, and resolve the negative effects of corrosion and pollution from deicing salts. Potential performance benefits include enabling multi-functionalities to reduce maintenance costs, enable a longer service life, and reduce travel delays and costs. The technology is also readily transferrable to other sectors including roadway and airport construction.