Smart Solar Roadways
By: Nicola Davies, Ph.D., freelance writer
An artist’s rendering illustrates how LED lights embedded within solar roadways could delineate driving lanes on a highway that also could recharge electric vehicles as they travel over it.
Imagine solar panels, not on rooftops, but as a surface for parking lots, driveways, roads, bike trails and, eventually, even highways. Then imagine integrating those solar panels with microprocessors and LED lights so they can be programmed to delineate driving lanes, parking spaces, crosswalks and more.
This innovation in technology and engineering, which also would allow all-electric vehicles to be recharged anywhere, is the brainchild of inventors Julie and Scott Brusaw. The Brusaws, founders of Sandpoint, Idaho-based Solar Roadways Inc., are on a mission to manufacture technology to power the world. This might sound futuristic, but the couple and the engineers with whom they are collaborating are now in the second phase of testing a prototype parking lot. They have been finalists for numerous awards for their design, including the 2009 EE Times Best Enabler Award for Green Engineering, the 2010 EE Times Most Promising Renewable Energy Award and the 2013 World Technology Award. They also were invited to the first-ever Maker Faire hosted by the White House in June 2014, which showcased innovators and entrepreneurs who are using cutting-edge tools to bring their ideas to life.
The Brusaws’ vision is to replace petroleum-based asphalt roads with pressure-sensitive solar panels manufactured from tempered glass that has been designed and tested to meet all impact loads — including 250,000-pound trucks. The panels generate and use energy they collect from sunlight, which powers elements that can heat the surface of the panels to melt snow and ice. Every panel incorporates a series of LED lights connected to the circuit boards that can be programmed to produce lane lines and other markings for roads and parking lots.
Programmable, interlocking hexagonal solar panels manufactured from super-strong tempered glass could one day be used to pave roadways, parking lots, sidewalks, driveways and outdoor recreation surfaces.
A solar highway infrastructure could enable electric vehicles to recharge while they are being driven, via mutual induction; a vehicle fitted with a power-receiving plate would pick up energy from induction plates in the road. (While this technology already exists, there is no simple way to install those plates in asphalt roads.)
The solar panels are designed to last 20 to 30 years and are easily cleaned. Unlike regular glass, tempered glass ruptures into small, rubble-like pieces without sharp or jagged edges when broken, which protects tires from damage and pedestrians from injury. In addition, it is much quicker to replace broken panels than to repair or resurface conventional concrete and asphalt roads. Broken panels can be easily repaired and reused.
The solar panels are also self-sufficient; each one contains a microprocessor that communicates wirelessly with neighboring panels. If a panel malfunctions and stops communicating, the other panels report the problem and the damaged panel can be replaced and a new one programmed within minutes.
The Solar Roadways prototype parking lot now under construction is being funded in part by a two-year $750,000 Small Business Innovation Research contract with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to build two prototypes of solar panels to be tested under all weather and sunlight conditions. A fundraising campaign on the Indiegogo crowdfunding website also raised more than $2 million for the project.
Inventor Scott Brusow demonstrates the panels’ ability to handle heavy loads.
When will commercial production of solar roadway panels begin? No date has been announced, but production is likely to begin soon after Solar Roadways issues a cost analysis report and makes other relevant information accessible to the public. While detractors may question the feasibility of solar roadways on a large scale, as well as the costs associated with a rollout, the Solar Roadways team currently is analyzing the cost of a prototype roadway. It is clear that, at least in the short to mid-term, this will be a complementary technology that will be implemented on a relatively small scale, rather than a wholesale substitute for existing roads.
According to Scott Brusaw, the city of Sandpoint, Idaho, is likely to be the first city to implement solar roadways, before they are demonstrated globally next year. Yet they already showcase an ingenious, creative solution to a common worldwide infrastructure problem.