Conductive concrete could make snowy roads a thing of the past

As much of the eastern US continues to recover from a massive winter storm that dumped more than three feet of snow in some places, experts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are touting a technological advance that could make the roads safer during future blizzards.

Chris Tuan, a professor of civil engineering at the university, and his colleagues have developed a type of conductive concrete which could be used in roads, making it easier to keep them free of ice and snow, ideally preventing incidents like the one which left some motorists stranded on the Pennsylvania turnpike for more than 30 hours this past weekend.

As UNL explained in a statement, Tuan’s team added tiny amounts of steel shavings and carbon particles to the established concrete recipe, and while the new ingredients comprise no more than one-fifth of the mixture, they would allow roads to conduct enough electricity to keep roads clear of snow and ice while remaining safe to the touch.

conductive concrete

A slab of conductive concrete demonstrates its de-icing capability outside the Peter Kiewit Institute in Omaha during a winter storm in December 2015. The concrete carries just enough current to melt ice while remaining safe to the touch. (Courtesy photo/Chris Tuan and Lim Nguyen)

The conductive concrete has been in use for more than a decade at the Roca Spur Bridge near Lincoln. In 2002, the Tuan and the Nebraska Department of Roads used the material at the 150-foot structure, placing 52 slabs of the concrete on the bridge. The UNL researchers noted that it has been a tremendous success, keeping the bridge from icing up and becoming hazardous.

“Bridges always freeze up first, because they’re exposed to the elements on top and bottom,” Tuan explained. “It’s not cost-effective to build entire roadways using conductive concrete, but you can use it at certain locations where you always get ice or have potholes.”

Substance could reduce costs, help prevent potholes

Since the use of salt or other de-icing agents over the winter is one of the primary causes of potholes, the professor said that the conducive concrete help keep roads from deteriorating and could ultimately help lower operating, maintenance and infrastructure repair costs – while also keeping the chemicals used in those substances from contaminating groundwater.

Tuan said that it currently requires $250 to de-ice the Roca Spur Bridge during a three-day snow storm, which is several times less than using snowplows filled with salt or other chemicals. Also, he believes that the conducive concrete could be used on exit ramps and sidewalks, and his team is currently demonstrating their product’s effectiveness to the Federal Aviation Administration.

conductive concrete

Chris Tuan, professor of civil engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, stands on a slab of conductive concrete that can carry enough electrical current to melt ice during winter storms. Tuan is working with the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Strategic Command on multiple applications for his patented concrete mixture. (Scott Schrage/University Communications)

If the FAA is satisfied with the results of the ongoing tests, which run through March, they plan to use the conducive concrete in at a major US airport, the researchers said. Rather than using it on a runway, however, Tuan said that the agency wants to install it at the tarmac surrounding the gates areas where they unload luggage, food service, refuse and fuel service carts.

“They said that if we can heat that kind of tarmac, then there would be (fewer) weather-related delays,” Tuan said. He added that he and his colleagues were “very optimistic” about the tests, and that he could vouch for the conducive concrete on a personal level as well. “I have a patio in my backyard that is made of conductive concrete, so I’m practicing what I preach.”


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