UW student probes solar road as path to future
We call it blacktop today. But what if it was glasstop?
University of Waterloo engineering student Andrew Northmore cuts fiberglass in his lab. Northmore's research focuses on how roads can be used to generate electricity.
WATERLOO — We call it blacktop today. But what if it was glasstop?
To make a road out of glass sounds far-fetched. But imagine the potential. The sun could shine through to reach solar panels embedded below.
“If you were to put down solar road panels across every interstate highway in the United States, you’d be able to generate three times the electricity that they use in a day,” engineering student Andrew Northmore says.
Northmore, 24, plans to see how a solar road might work in groundbreaking research at the University of Waterloo.
“That’s part of the fun of what we try to do in engineering is actually take these scientific ideas and make them into practical things,” he said.
It’s a grand idea. We have filled our landscape with pavement, much of which lies directly under the sun. Why not use it to capture the sun’s energy?
But there are many challenges. Can you really drive on glass? It sounds slippery. Can it hold up against traffic and ice? What about dark rubber left behind by tires? Will the strain of traffic shatter the fibreglass base that holds the glass surface and solar panels in place?
While a solar highway is the ultimate goal, the more practical starting place is a solar sidewalk or parking lot, which takes a lesser pounding.
Imagine a parking lot that lights itself drawing on solar panels embedded in driving aisles. Imagine a sidewalk that generates enough juice to melt its own snow. Imagine embedding solar panels in road shoulders and selling electricity to the power grid.
Susan Tighe doesn’t know of anyone else in Canada researching solar roads from a civil engineering perspective. “This is not something that’s going to replace asphalt or concrete any day soon,” said Tighe, director of UW’s Centre for Pavement and Transportation Technology. But “it has a lot of potential.”
Northmore will write a graduate thesis around his research. In the coming months he plans to build and test three prototypes, each about one square metre.
One will measure electricity from a solar panel embedded between glass surface and fibreglass base. Glass will be laminated, tempered and textured, to boost strength, contain fragments if it breaks and prevent slipping.
A second prototype will be put through 100 freeze-thaw cycles in a laboratory freezer, to simulate three winters. A third prototype will be squashed to see what it takes to break it.
Northmore is excited to “get my hands dirty working on something that could have a very big impact on the world’s energy infrastructure.” A paper he wrote on his research was named among top student papers at a recent engineering conference.
“We need to look at ways that are going to make a more sustainable energy future for our kids and grandkids, so that they can have a nice, happy planet too,” he said.
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