Smart concrete could pave the way for high-tech, cheaper roads

Every day, Americans travel on roads, bridges and highways without considering the safety or reliability of these structures. Yet much of the transportation infrastructure in the U.S. is outdated, deteriorating and badly in need of repair.

Of the 614,387 bridges in the U.S., for example, 39% have been around longer than they were ever meant to be, and nearly 10% are structurally deficient, meaning they could begin to break down faster or, worse, be vulnerable to catastrophic failure.

The cost to repair and improve nationwide transportation infrastructure ranges from nearly $190 billion to almost $1 trillion. Repairing U.S. infrastructure costs households, on average, about $3,400 a year each. Traffic congestion alone is estimated to cost the average driver $1,400 in fuel and time spent commuting, a national tally of more than $160 billion a year.

I am a professor in the Lyles School of Civil Engineering and the director of the Center for Intelligent Infrastructures at Purdue University. My fellow author, Vishal Saravade, is part of my team at the Sustainable Materials and Renewable Technology Lab, or SMART Lab. The SMART Lab researches and develops new technologies to make American infrastructure “smart,” safer and more cheaper. These new systems monitor the condition of roads and bridges quickly and accurately and can, sometimes, even repair themselves.

‘Self-repairing’ concrete

Infrastructure – bridges, highways, pavement – deteriorates over time with continuous use. The duration of such structures could be extended, however, if damages were monitored in real time and repaired early on. In the northern U.S., for example, freeze-thaw cycles in winter cause water to seep into the pavement, where it freezes, expands and enlarges cracks, which can cause significant damage. If left unrepaired, this damage can break down pavements and bridges.

Such damage can be identified and repaired autonomously. At an early stage of a crack, for example, self-repairing pavement would activate super polymers to absorb water and produce concrete-like material that fills in the crack. Cracks as small as a few microns could be repaired to prevent significant damage by preventing or delaying the later stages of the freeze-thaw cycle.

Roadway technology

Many researchers in the world are working on improving construction infrastructure. Technologies recently being explored include solar and energy-harvesting roads, charging lanes for electric vehicles, smart streetlights and systems to reduce carbon-related emissions from construction materials.

At the Purdue SMART Lab, our team is also testing new sensors that monitor transportation infrastructure by embedding them in several Indiana interstate highways. We plan to expand to other state highway systems in the next few years to better accommodate increased traffic and provide accurate estimates of road conditions during construction.

Sensors embedded in concrete pavement take in information about infrastructure’s condition in real time and send those data to computers. Electrical signals are applied through the sensors. Concrete’s vibrations are converted into electrical signals that are read and analyzed by lab-built software. This enables transportation engineers to make effective and data-driven decisions from opening roads to traffic and to identifying causes of damage or deterioration.

After concrete is poured for highway pavement, for example, it takes hours to cure and become strong enough to open for traffic. The timing of when to open a highway depends on when concrete mix is cured. If a roadway opens too early and the concrete is undercured, it can reduce the duration of pavement and increase maintenance costs. Waiting too long to open a road can result in traffic delays, congestion and increased safety risks for construction workers and commuters. Curing concrete for massive highway projects requires close attention by engineers who are also taking note of the weather specific to whatever region they are working in.

Smart sensors embedded in concrete enable engineers to monitor infrastructure and make data-driven decisions about when a road can open. Sensors can also help monitor the quality of concrete and whether it is strong enough to withstand traffic flow and corrosion after a roadway is opened. Smart, efficient infrastructure can significantly reduce structural failures, both catastrophic and through normal wear, as well as lead to reduced costs and provide new ways for structural engineers to assess real-time information about pavement.

Saving time and money

Congress recognizes the need to invest in American transportation systems. A $494 billion legislation package, the INVEST In America Act, was recently introduced in response to America’s deteriorating highways and bridges while diminishing carbon pollution.

Smart sensors and intelligent infrastructure system can enable significant savings of time and money with improved construction safety. Sensors can provide engineers with real-time data of the quality of our infrastructure to help them make the best decisions possible for building and maintaining roads, bridges and pavements and making conditions safer for drivers and construction workers. The addition of self-repairing properties can help build long-lasting infrastructure to reduce maintenance and costs.