Nano Roads? It Could Happen Soon

A quieter, cooler ride to work on roads that don't have potholes seems more like a dream than a reality, but researchers at Rice University say they're closer than you might think to making that happen. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, nanotechology, on a much larger scale, could be the answer to making our roads and bridges stronger and more durable.

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"Usually the terminology for nano is bottom-up technology."

Dr. Rick Barrera is the chair of Rice University's Department of Mechanical Engineering and Material Science and specializes in the study of nano-tubes and how they can be used in building and repairing roads, bridges and other large structures.

"In this we start at slightly above the atom size, molecular scale, and then we move that into larger structures, and what we're doing is we're trying to assemble things from that small scale to a larger framework."

By moving the nano-tubes through the various scales, Barrera and his colleagues think they can utilize the material's superior strength and conductive properties to create roadways that don't wear out as quickly. They also think they'll be able to build quieter roads because of the nano-tubes ability to dampen sound.

"One of the things, particularly as we start to bring in new roadways to various types of neighborhoods, there's always this issue of the noise level that gets created. This is an area where we think nanotechnology can really help. It can reduce the noise level from the road, from cars going across the road, make it a much better environment for the sound quality issue of living in a community the size of Houston."

Researchers also think they can use nano-tubes to engineer roadways that are cooler.

"Concrete as we know, we know hot hot it gets around concrete structures. They have a very high thermal connectivity, better than diamond, so there's interest in using them for their thermal properties just to kick heat out of the system."

Barerra says road projects using nano-tubes would likely start with something small, like repairs to potholes, with the nano-material mixed into the asphalt.

"What you'd like to see is that with longer time they don't tend to wall-out like what we see now with patches that occur in the roads and things like that. We would want to engineer them so that the properties across that interface between the concrete and the asphalt fill stay pretty much the same and you don't have to the go back and redo that over and over again."

Houston city councilman Adrian Garcia says he can see money-saving applications for nano-tubes on area streets and roadways. He's met with Barerra to discuss how the technology can be applied on a larger, more cost effective scale.

"Why not do something today that would change the quality of life but really not having us going back to the taxpayer trough and spending good money after bad money? Let's be smart and let's apply research and information that's out there for the benefit of Houston taxpayers."

Nanotechnology is still considerred to be in its infancy, with large-scale roadway applications still a few years away.

Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...