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Climate change is causing a pothole plague. Are robots and self-healing pavement the solution?

Extreme heat waves, wildfires and flooding are among the most obvious impacts of the Earth’s changing climate.

But dire weather events are not the only way global warming is wreaking havoc worldwide. Climate change is also creating a pothole plague.

In 2023, there were nearly 630,000 reports of potholes in the UK, which marked a five-year high, according to data compiled by campaign group Round Our Way. In the United States, meanwhile, about 44 million drivers reported damage to their vehicles from potholes in 2022, which was a massive 57% increase over 2021, according to AAA.

While ageing infrastructure and limited road maintenance budgets play a significant role in the problem, another culprit behind the marked proliferation of potholes is severe weather brought about by climate change, which is weakening roads.

“There are a number of issues caused by climate change that are impacting roads,” says Hassan Davani, Ph.D., an associate professor in San Diego State University’s Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering. “Excessive heat can ultimately cause buckling of the roads, where additional thermal stress to the pavement materials can lead to cracks and potholes. We’re also experiencing more extreme flooding events, which causes a higher velocity of stream flow over the roads, resulting in more severe erosion of the pavement.”

Another contributing factor is the increased number of freeze and thaw cycles taking place each year as climate change worsens, which is also undermining road conditions.

With more freezing and thawing comes more frost heaves impacting roads. “Frost heaves are ice lenses that form in underlying layers of the road. When they melt during the spring thaw, the moisture is trapped and that’s a big part of the issue causing the formation of potholes,” adds Jo Sias, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire.

With all of the challenges facing roadway infrastructure globally, several innovative approaches are being developed that aim to more effectively and cost-efficiently repair potholes – or prevent them from happening in the first place.

Among the intriguing innovations emerging is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots to address transportation infrastructure problems, including potholes.

In the UK, a startup named Robotiz3d has created the world’s first autonomous robot that relies upon AI to find cracks and potholes in the road and fix them. The robot, named ARRES PREVENT, analyses the geometry of potholes and collects measurement data. The information that ARRES PREVENT gathers allows an algorithm to predict road conditions. And, using that information, local officials are able to identify where road maintenance is most urgently needed.

“These robots are rover robots, developed by academic research centers, such as the University of Liverpool. They have wheels and a camera system that allows image processing to be done in real time,” explains Davani. “They focus on the detection of the potential areas for potholes and other types of pavement failures, so that they can work to fix potholes in the next step.”

While pothole-detecting robots are largely still in the research-and-development phase, Robotiz3d’s ARRES PREVENT is scheduled to be used on the roads of Hertfordshire in 2024 to repair residential streets.

Robots, however, are merely one of the innovative approaches being developed to deal with potholes.

A big part of the problem with existing roadways is that traditional pavement design has not accounted for the climate events that the planet is now experiencing, meaning most existing pavements aren’t prepared for such events.

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But in some places, local public works officials are turning their attention to pavements that can withstand increased temperature ranges, says Gabe Cimini, managing principal for infrastructure management and pavement engineering at the global architecture, construction management and environmental services firm Stantec.

“In parts of California, for example, a [road’s] performance grade may be PG58-32—able to withstand surface temperatures between 58 and -32 degrees Celsius,” explains Cimini. “These are in line with local conditions and historical data, but can be updated to deal with hotter and colder temperatures.”

In other words, different pavement mix compositions specifically designed to withstand a wider range of temperatures may be used in the future.

Yet another important innovation that’s emerged recently involves using solid carbon derived from the carbon capture process to strengthen asphalt mixes and minimise potholes.

Washington-based climate tech startup Modern Hydrogen, which has attracted seed funding from the likes of Bill Gates, has focused its efforts on this novel approach, which creates a longer-lasting form of asphalt.

The clean-tech company’s primary line of business is pulling solid carbon from natural gas to create clean hydrogen. But as part of that process, solid carbon is created, which as it turns out, can serve as a key material in creating asphalt that holds up better in the face of climate change.

“Our material makes asphalt stronger and more durable,” Modern Hydrogen CEO Tony Pan tells the BBC. “We increase stiffness by 250%. That means the roads are stronger, more durable and asphalt is able to withstand higher temperatures.”

The strengthened roads are just one of the benefits of Modern Hydrogen’s innovation, which is currently in use in five US states and Canada.

Traditional asphalt is made of dirt, pebbles, stone and sand. But the most expensive part of the asphalt is the material used to bind it, which is traditionally bitumen. And bitumen is made from oil, Pan explains.

“The use of bitumen is why roads are very carbon intensive,” he continues. “But by using our solid carbon to bind asphalt, we’re reducing the bitumen that’s being used as a binder. So, the roads last longer and they’re also less C02 intensive.”

Self-healing pavement, sometimes referred to as “smart asphalt,” is also gaining buzz in the world of road repair. Though self-healing pavement has actually been around for years, newer forms of this type of pavement may prove helpful in dealing with climate change. Some of the latest options include the “incorporation of healing agents, induction heating, microwave heating, and other healing technologies,” according to a 2022 study.

One type of self-healing pavement, for instance, includes steel fibres that can release heat into mortar, thus melting it briefly. This in turn, allows the road to repair or close potholes on its own.

“The newer materials with a higher propensity for self-healing and with the various additives are still mostly in research and development,” says Sias. “There are full-scale test sections being used in different places around the world, but not real wide implementation.”

While each of these developments offers hope for addressing potholes more effectively amid climate change, and are attracting investors as well, the reality is that innovations take time to be implemented. Many still need to go through testing before they can be adopted. Meaning, widespread use is likely still a few years down the road.



Mia Taylor at BBC Future

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