Solar-powered roads are now a reality

US Route 66 has been a prominent feature of pop culture for years. However, North America’s most iconic highway could soon become known for paving the way in solar-power transport infrastructure.

Visitors to the Historic Route 66 Welcome Centre in Missouri will soon be able to walk on a footpath made of solar road tiles. While this is a minor trial, the goal of the project is to determine if the technology is safe to use on streets.

The technology is produced by startup company Solar Roadway. Modular paving tiles combine specially engineered solar cells and LED lights that create lines and signage. The hexagonal shape offers stability and flexibility when installing at curves and hill, and has a tractioned surface similar to asphalt. The tiles should be easier to repair than asphalt as well, since maintenance workers won’t need to take out whole patches of road to fix small cracks.

A specially formulated tempered glass allows the tiles to be safely walked and driven upon, and can support the weight of a semi-trailer truck.

Heating elements are also integrated into the tiles to prevent snow and ice accumulation – a major problem for transport networks throughout much of the country in winter. The brightness of the lines and road signs can also be turned up during dark, foggy or stormy conditions.

The panels each contain a microprocessor and are able to communicate with each other, a central control station and vehicles.

The Solar Roadways team hopes the panels will be used to create a highway system that will pay for itself over time by generating renewable energy. The electricity from the roads could also be used to power nearby houses and buildings, helping eliminate power lines. The smart technology within the panels could also integrate with next-generation smart cars.

The solar pavers project is one of many ideas the Missouri Transport Department is discussing as it plans for future transportation needs.

“Technology already has changed how we think about different things in our lives,” the department’s assistant district engineer Tom Blair said, “and it is going to disrupt everything that every one of us transportation leaders have experienced to date in our life.

If the solar-powered road technology isn’t adopted, Mr Blair said the state will “soon have self-driving, ‘smart’ vehicles on our dumb and underfunded roadways”.