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Follow the Glowing Road

Friday, June 24, 2016

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Could roadways of the future illuminate themselves? If research proceeds the way scientists at a Mexico university plan, glow-in-the-dark cement could light the way without the need for electricity.

A team at Michoacan University of San Nicolás de Hidalgo, led by José Carlos Rubio Ávalos, has developed a phosphorescent cement that it sees finding use in the construction of highways, bike paths or buildings.

Modifying Materials

Glow-in-the-dark trails and highway surfaces aren’t exactly new. In 2014, a Dutch civil engineering and infrastructure company unveiled a bike path that lit itself up at night in homage to Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, “The Starry Night.” That project covered stones with a smart coating that absorbed sunlight during the day and glowed at night.

In 2013, that same firm also collaborated on a “smart highway” project that utilized glow-in-the-dark, solar-powered paint to light up the road at night and warn drivers of treacherous conditions. In 2014, the smart highway tested lines made from paint containing a photo-luminescent powder to replace street lights along the roadway.

However, the Michoacan scientists looked beyond the application paint and went straight to the structural material itself. The team tweaked the internal structure of cement itself so that, with additives, it can become phosphorescent in the dark, Scientific American reported.

Making Cement Glow

“Cement is an opaque body, it does not allow the passage of light to the interior, so we must make a change in its microstructure to allow a partial entry of light into the interior for it to have this behavior,” Rubio Ávalos told the science publication.

Through the use of additives, the researchers are able to prevent the formation of crystals that occur in the production of cement; this creates a “material with a noncrystalline structure—similar to glass—that allows passage of light inside,” the magazine wrote.

The scientists are able to control the intensity of both luminescence and color by adjusting the amount of additives added during production. The product, which is both eco-friendly and sustainable, Rubio Ávalos told pop culture news site Fusion, emits light as a greenish-blue color. He added that he’s working on reproducing it in red and purple as well.

Because of the physical changes that occur within the cement, it is not able to be used in structural applications, however. Instead, the team notes, is meant to be added to existing surfaces as a coating material.

Still, the modified cement boasts a very long shelf life versus phosphorescent products such as plastics or paints, depending on end use, Rubio Ávalos claims.

On a daily basis, after the phosphorescent materials within the cement absorb the sun’s ultraviolet rays, the surface should be able to glow in the dark for as long as 12 hours, even on cloudy days.

Future Applications

It took Rubio Ávalos three years to apply photoluminescence technology to concrete, and he was awarded a patent in 2014.

He plans to apply the technology to a range of products that go beyond highways and cement, and says he’s received interest from potential investors.

“The technology has not yet been produced, but we are working on commercializing it,” he said. “We are getting invitations to test the material and we have some options in Europe, where they have asked us to illuminate docks and coast lines.”

While it is expensive in comparison to regular cement—$25 per square meter versus $7 per square meter in Mexico—Rubio Ávalos noted that it could prove cost-effective in the long term, since it relies on solar power rather than fossil fuels.

Along those lines, Carmen Andrade, a researcher at the Spanish National Research Council Institute of Building Sciences in Madrid, told Scientific American that she sees future use in developing countries: “It’s an application that can be worth developing in countries and areas with poor access to electricity in communities with poor life levels, as it doesn’t consume electricity.”

More research is planned to determine costs producing the quantities needed to build or maintain large infrastructure projects, as well as how to repair the material.


Tagged categories: Additives; Cement; Coatings Technology; Infrastructure; Lighting; Roads/Highways; Solar

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