Highway Researchers See Big Future with Science of the Tiny

Thu June 19, 2003 - National Edition

A future in which cracked bridges and potholes repair on their own, guardrails realign automatically after impact, bridges adjust their shapes to control movement caused by winds, and metal structures self clean to avoid corrosion are among the advances in highway technology under forecast by scientists from the Federal Highway Administration’s Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center.

"Highway research and technology leads to safer, simpler and smarter highways," FHWA Administrator Mary E. Peters said. "The improvements we are studying can mean a better quality of life for all Americans. FHWA research engineers have an important role in advancing new technologies to serve the public and improve our nation’s highway system."

The self-healing properties of pavements and other structures are only one of the multiple breakthroughs possible in highway technology that scientists are exploring at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center.

These advances could be made possible through nanotechnology-the art and science that involves breaking down matter particles at the most minuscule scale of atoms and molecules, invisible to the naked eye, and changing their characteristics. Through this process, properties of matter can be manipulated to achieve better quality.

The science holds great promise for the transportation sector because scientists potentially could manipulate the molecules of cement and asphalt to optimize certain features and create pavements with much better performance. They also could manufacture steel many times more durable and much stronger by rearranging and combining alloy particles.

Nanotechnology has applications in virtually every field including medicine, engineering, manufacturing, electronics and material and computer sciences. The possible uses and benefits in the transportation sector are manifold.

Through computing, for example, sensors embedded into highways could allow engineers to monitor the processes that contribute to deterioration and cracking without physical intervention. Similarly, sensors in bridges could monitor vibrations and loads and enable researches to assess weaknesses and fix them long before they are apparent to human inspectors. Road sensors networks also could gather and provide data to transportation operators to manage congestion and incidents better and detect fast-changing weather conditions.

A recent workshop at TFHRC highlighted these advances. The workshop was conducted with the support of the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, MA and in partnership with the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the Executive Office of the President, leading research and academic institutions, and other government agencies. These included the National Science Foundation, the Transportation Research Board, Draper Labs, the Scottish Center for Nanotechnology in Construction Materials, John Hopkins University, Northwestern University, University of Southern California, University of Illinois, University of California at Berkeley, the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Energy, and NASA’s Langley Research Center.

Research on nanotechnology at the FHWA supports the National Nanotechnology Initiative cutting across several federal agencies and is coordinated by the National Science Foundation under the guidance of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.