New road technology shows promising early results

Technology |  2 min. read

Asphalt has been around for a long time.  The first reference to it, that we know about, is from about 2600 hundred years ago – when it made for a smooth ride on the streets of Babylon.

But while asphalt has been paving the way for our rides ever since, there’s always room for improvement.  And today, the new addition is – plastic.

That’s plastic, as in the kinds of plastic that often get tossed out today into the trash, like grocery bags and cling wrap made from a specific type of polyethylene.  Instead, Dow Chemical is working on a new asphalt that uses old polyethylene to make new (and better roads).

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The technical term is “PMA roads” – the PMA standing for “polymer modified asphalt”, and polymer being another name for today’s plastics.  And both polyethylene (the polymer made from ethylene) and asphalt share a common source – petroleum.  Asphalt is one of the products made from crude oil, and the petrochemicals that are also made from crude oil, like ethylene, are the building blocks for almost all the plastics we use today.

The project started overseas, where Dow worked with Thailand, with Indonesia and with India (all countries where the issue of plastic ending up as trash, is a significant problem) on blending plastic into asphalt.  26 miles of road, and more than 100 tons of plastic later – Dow is bringing its secret sauce home.

In fact, you could drive on one of those plastic roads today, here in the United States – although, you’d have to work for Dow Chemical, at its plant in Freeport, Texas – which is where you’d find two test “tracks”, Gulfstream Road and Plastics Road (and who says engineers don’t have a sense of humor).

(Photo from Dow Chemical)

So – putting plastic that might otherwise end up in the trash – into pavement for our streets – that’s an obvious good thing.  But that’s not the only good thing about a plastic road.

By one estimate, roads paved in asphalt made with plastic last longer – maybe THREE TIMES as long as regular asphalt.  The plastic asphalt is more resistant to corrosion – aka, the cause of potholes, and that should be welcome news to anyone who drives or bikes.

And (yes, there’s still more) – the road-ologists (ok, we made that job title up – but the work is for real) say that when roads are in better shape, we use less fuel when we drive on them.  And using less fuel means fewer emissions, and we save a few bucks too (not to mention the savings from NOT having to take your car in for an alignment after a close encounter with a pothole).

Right now, the U.S. version of this pavement is in the beta stage – being thoroughly tested at that Dow plant in Texas.  But given the record of success elsewhere – you might well see (or  maybe “feel” is more accurate) a little plastic in your asphalt in the not-so-distant future.

And that blend of chemistry and manufacturing innovation – coming up with a way to (re)use plastic – to help solve the problem of keeping used plastic out of the trash – that’s a clear road forward.