Solar energy bouncing off pavements 'can melt ice, power streetlights'

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Washington, Nov 10 (ANI): Engineering researchers from the University of Rhode Island are examining methods of harvesting solar energy which is radiated off roadways to melt ice, power streetlights, illuminate signs, heat buildings and potentially use it for many other purposes.

"We have mile after mile of asphalt pavement around the country, and in the summer it absorbs a great deal of heat, warming the roads up to 140 degrees or more," said K. Wayne Lee, URI professor of civil and environmental engineering and the leader of the joint project.

"If we can harvest that heat, we can use it for our daily use, save on fossil fuels, and reduce global warming."

One of the simplest ideas is to wrap flexible photovoltaic cells around the top of Jersey barriers dividing highways to provide electricity to power streetlights and illuminate road signs. The photovoltaic cells could also be embedded in the roadway between the Jersey barrier and the adjacent rumble strip.

"This is a project that could be implemented today because the technology already exists," said Lee.

"Since the new generation of solar cells are so flexible, they can be installed so that regardless of the angle of the sun, it will be shining on the cells and generating electricity. A pilot program is progressing for the lamps outside Bliss Hall on campus."

Another practical approach to harvesting solar energy from pavement is to embed water filled pipes beneath the asphalt and allow the sun to warm the water. The heated water could then be piped beneath bridge decks to melt accumulated ice on the surface and reduce the need for road salt. The water could also be piped to nearby buildings to satisfy heating or hot water needs, similar to geothermal heat pumps. It could even be converted to steam to turn a turbine in a small, traditional power plant.

A third alternative uses a thermo-electric effect to generate a small but usable amount of electricity. When two types of semiconductors are connected to form a circuit linking a hot and a cold spot, there is a small amount of electricity generated in the circuit.

URI Chemistry Professor Sze Yang believes that thermo-electric materials could be embedded in the roadway at different depths - or some could be in sunny areas and others in shade - and the difference in temperature between the materials would generate an electric current. With many of these systems installed in parallel, enough electricity could be generated to defrost roadways or be used for other purposes. Instead of the traditional semiconductors, he proposes to use a family of organic polymeric semiconductors developed at his laboratory that can be fabricated inexpensively as plastic sheets or painted on a flexible plastic sheet.

"This is a somewhat futuristic idea, since there isn't any practical device on the market for doing this, but it has been demonstrated to work in a laboratory," said Yang.

"With enough additional research, I think it can be implemented in the field."

Perhaps the most futuristic idea the URI team has considered is to completely replace asphalt roadways with roadways made of large, durable electronic blocks that contain photovoltaic cells, LED lights and sensors.

The blocks can generate electricity, illuminate the roadway lanes in interchangeable configurations, and provide early warning of the need for maintenance. (ANI)

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